Two Must-have Survival Root Crops: Jerusalem Artichokes and Cassava

May 25, 2013

Subsistence Farming

My focus for years, since I realized in ’03 what was happening to our financial system and government, has been to live off my land and be able to have a great store of homegrown food. Canning, drying, root cellaring and pickling are all great ways to do this… but my very favorite way on insuring a supply of calories in an emergency is through keeping those calories stored in the ground.

Back when I lived in Tennessee, I did this via a great big patch of Jerusalem artichokes. Now that I’m in Florida, I do it through a great big patch of cassava. There are very few similarities between these two plants. One is in the sunflower family… the other is in the spurge family. One bears roots year-round… one does not. One has pretty flowers… the other has graceful canes and palmate leaves. They do have a few notable places where they overlap, however.

1. Both Jerusalem artichokes and cassava grow like weeds and produce in less-than-ideal conditions.
2. Both produce an abundance of calories.
3. Both are tall plants and not readily recognizable as food sources.
4. Both will mess you up if you don’t prepare them right. Raw cassava contains cyanide precursors… and Jerusalem artichokes will give you gas so bad you’ll beg for the sweet embrace of death.
5. Both are exceptional survival crops.
6. Both are bothered by very few pests.
7. Both are excellent chicken/pig feed.

For the northern half of the US, Jerusalem artichokes are king. For zones 8 and higher, cassava is king. Unfamiliar with these perennial staples? Let’s get acquainted.

Jerusalem Artichokes: Tough as Nails, Pretty as a Picture

You'd never know something so pretty was a life-saving survival crop.

You’d never know something so pretty was a life-saving survival crop.

I planted buckets of these things in my yard in Tennessee. I started with a handful of tubers a friend gave me in early spring, planted those, watched as they grew into magnificent plants and burst into glorious bloom in the fall. After the frosts took the above-ground growth, I dug down to find many, many pounds of tubers beneath the clay. I harvested a big pile of them the next spring and planted them (with my then 4-year-old daughter’s help) in a great big patch of rough land along a drainage ditch. By the next summer, the ditch was completely obscured by a lush wall of green; and in the fall I had terrifying amounts of tubers.

This was amazing to me. I never watered these things… I never sprayed for bugs… I never weeded… I never prepared the soil. Some were growing in rocky clay that had been torn up by construction equipment and inverted so the topsoil was basically gone. In other places, I hacked through grass and planted them. One spot was in the shade – and they still produced, albeit on a less-impressive level.

Jerusalem artichokes are survivors. And if you grow them – you will be too. They’re a perennial that does better if you harvest regularly. People like to say “watch out – these things are invasive!” I’ve come to think that the word “invasive” is just something people say about plants you don’t have to baby along. Somehow, if it grows well on its own, watch out! It’s… INVASIVE! Whatever. Sure – if you plant them in the middle of your lettuce bed, they’ll fill it up… but come on… you wouldn’t plant a chestnut tree in the middle of your driveway, would you? Just put them at an edge and let them grow. This is the plant that will live when your other plants have a bad year. It could end up a buffer between you… and being really, really hungry.

In order to grow these babies, you first need to get some roots. This can only be done during the winter and early spring. Once the plants begin growing in mid-spring, the roots rapidly deteriorate to feed the new growth. Plan accordingly when you decide to seek out tubers locally or mail-order them. In some places, you can find Jerusalem artichokes growing in the wild… but must of us are stuck begging them off a neighbor or shelling out some beans to a seed company to get started.

Plant them a few inches deep in the fall, winter or early spring and don’t forget where you planted them. It’s easy to miss the new growth amongst the first flush of weeds and grass – but once the plants get taller, they’ll rapidly out-compete everything around them. The roots are formed in a big clump at the base of the main stalk. This clump is usually about 2′ across or less and consists of a bunch of lumpy little tubers all jammed together. I would pick out the nice fat ones for the table and plant the rest around the yard in an ever-expanding patch.

During the winter you can dig Jerusalem artichokes anytime – provided your ground isn’t frozen solid.

I really loved these plants in October. That’s when they’d burst into a profusion of blooms. The flowers look like small sunflowers and even stand up well in vases. With a plant so pretty, it’s easy to forget you’re survival gardening, rather than just beautifying your land – and that’s a good place to be. It’s almost like God was thinking “You know, I’ll give man something productive to sustain him through tough times… but I’m going to make it beautiful to keep his spirits up.” These will definitely cheer you, no matter what the circumstances.

Cassava: Staple to Millions

A dense patch of young cassava plants.

Most people have no idea what cassava is… even though it’s eaten throughout many of the equatorial nations of the world. Have you ever eaten tapioca pudding? Then you’ve eaten cassava.

Cassava plants are tall, graceful and tropical in appearance. Its palmate leaves and graceful cane-like branches are attractive in the landscape or in the garden. Cassava’s pseudonyms include yuca (with one “c,” NOT two: “yucca” is a completely unrelated species), manioc, the tapioca plant, and manihot. In science-speak, it’s Manihot escuelenta.

Whatever you call it, it’s a serious staple crop. Virtually pest-free, drought tolerant, loaded with calories, capable of good growth in poor soil – cassava is a must-have anyplace it can grow. And it’s MUCH less work than grain and much more tolerant of harvest times. In fact, once it’s hit maturity, you can basically dig it at any point for a few years (though apparently the roots may sometimes get too woody to eat).

That said, if temperatures drop to freezing, your cassava will freeze to the ground. This won’t usually kill the plant (assuming the ground doesn’t freeze too), but it does mean you need to plan your growing accordingly. I mulch over the roots in fall to make sure they survive.

In the tropics, cassava will live for years. The plant never dies back unless you live north of zone 10, then the occasional frosts will knock it down. Growing it in any zone beyond 8 is likely an exercise in futility. Cassava needs plenty of warm days and nights to make good roots. And speaking of roots… the cassava’s roots contain roughly twice the calories of a comparable serving of potatoes. Bonus: they’re easier to grow.

Cassava Roots

This is a typical cassava root, broken into three pieces. Total weight: 3lbs.

Unlike many plants, cassava is not usually grown from seeds except perhaps for breeding purposes. The only way to grow it is via stem cuttings. Roots from the grocery store almost definitely won’t work since they’ve lost their growing buds. To grow from fresh cuttings, chop a sturdy stem into pieces about 1.5’ long, stick them in the ground on their sides about two inches down and cover them lightly with soil – or, as I plant them, stuck in vertically with the growth buds pointing up – and within a week or so they’ll be growing new leaves. 6-12 months later (depending on care and rainfall), they’ll be ready to start harvesting.

To harvest, you machete down the entire plant a foot or so from the ground, throw the branches to the side and start digging. Be careful, though – the roots are easy to chop through. Some careful exploratory digging with a trowel is often a good idea. The roots you’re looking for grow down and away from the main stem and are generally located in the first 1-2’ of soil. They’re deep brown with flaky skin. Don’t dig them too long before you’re going to process them as cassava doesn’t store well at all.

Once you harvest the roots, you’ll want to chop up the rest of the plant to make a new set of canes for planting out. I snap off all the leaves and compost them, then cut the bare canes into planting size. Canes that are too green tend to rot rather than root, so throw them on the compost too. Sturdy, 1-2” diameter canes are perfect. (If you can’t find them locally, you can buy cassava here). Plant them a third of their length or so into the ground and stand back so the new growth doesn’t knock you over. Just don’t plant them upside-down. Ensure they’re right side up by looking for the tiny little growth buds by the leaf bases (or where the leaves were before they hit the compost bin). That little dot should be above the leaf’s base, not below.

To keep cassava growing in areas with frost, bury cut canes in a box beneath the ground for the winter… or let your current plants freeze to the ground and just wait for spring to bring new growth back… put cuttings in pots and bring them inside on freezing nights, then plant out in spring… or you can get a greenhouse and always keep a few plants in there for propagative stock.

Preparing Cassava for the Table

Slit and remove the outer peels on cassava roots.

Slit and remove the outer peels on cassava roots.

Now comes the fun part: eating your crops! Let’s start with cassava. People freak out about cassava because it contains… wait for it… CYANIDE! OMIGOSH OMIGOSH OMIGOSH CYANIDE!!!11!1!!!
Don’t worry. Breathe! Breathe! You just need to cook it. Preparing the roots for the table isn’t hard. They have an outer peel that you simply slit and strip off.

In the middle of the roots is a thin woody core that can be removed by chopping them in half and cutting it out. In order to remove the toxic cyanide precursors, boil cassava until it’s soft. Then, if you want something that tastes really great, take the boiled cassava, mash it, make patties out of it and fry them. Add garlic salt and they’re awesome served with your favorite dipping sauce. Imagine dense, fantastic, crispy hash-brown cakes. Mmm. Cassava is also good in the crock-pot, in stews and apparently, in Africa, as a fermented porridge. I’ve also boiled, then dried it, then ground it into flour. That was way too much work. I mostly just boil them now.

Preparing Jerusalem Artichokes for the Table

Jerusalem artichokes, unlike cassava, are not toxic raw. You can chop them up and throw them in a salad or nibble them in the garden. They taste somewhat like mild carrots, with a nice crunchiness. However, they do contain an indigestible sugar called “inulin” that may make you regret eating them in any quantity. They can cause EPIC intestinal distress. If you’ve never eaten them before, I recommend you start slow. Don’t eat a bunch at once. It’s possible for your intestinal tract to build up to the challenge. Let it. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. Add them to your diet a bit at a time and you ought to be fine.

Beyond building a gradual tolerance, you can also slow-cook Jerusalem artichokes for at least 12 hours to get the inulin under control.

They’re good pickled, mashed, fried and chopped raw into salads.

Start Your Calorie Savings Account NOW

I’ve thought again and again about how to survive a complete crash. If you have either of these plants available to you, plant them. I’m growing both on my homestead. When I lived further south, I had a big plot of cassava… and I told you about my big plot of Jerusalem artichokes in Tennessee. If you want to be safe, plant as many as you can. Stick them in rough areas of your yard. Plant them in empty lots. Give them to friends. And – if you really can’t stand them – feed them to your chickens and eat the resulting eggs. Or use them for pig feed. Just get a sure-fire bank of calories in the ground now… before you need to make a withdrawal.

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About David Goodman

David Goodman is a naturalist and hard-core gardener who has grown his own food since 1984. At age five, he sprouted a bean in a Dixie cup of soil and caught the gardening bug. Soon after, his dad built an 8’ by 8’ plot for him and David hasn’t stopped growing since. David writes a regular column for Natural Awakenings magazine in North Central Florida, posts on the Mother Earth News blog, owns a nursery of hard-to-find tropical edibles and grows roughly 1.5 zillion plants on his one-acre homestead. In mid-2012, he launched www.floridasurvivalgardening.com as a place to share his ongoing experiments with tropical and temperate crops. He currently has over 20 intensive beds, multiple field plots, over 100 fruit trees, two food forest projects in different climates and a series of ongoing experiments in-progress - all of which bring him closer each day to complete food security. David is a Christian, an artist, a husband, a father of seven, a cigar-smoker and an unrepentant economics junkie. Visit his daily blog here: Florida Survival Gardening

View all posts by David Goodman

7 comments on “Two Must-have Survival Root Crops: Jerusalem Artichokes and Cassava

  1. Andi on said:

    I live in Gainesville and I just planted my first cassava bed! A survival caloric staples combination here could be sweet potatoes, cassava, and peanuts. All easy to grow, a good combination of starch, fats, and vitamins (NO PELLAGRA HERE!). Can’t we also grow sunchokes here in Florida?

    • Yes, you can grow sunchokes. However, mine have done poorly compared to cassava. I’m about 35 minutes south of you, and I know people are growing them all the way down to Orlando with success: my guess is that the cultivar I have just isn’t suited to our long, hot summers and mild winters. The Jerusalem artichokes grew like weeds in TN – here, blah.

      • David, I enjoy reading your writings, immensely, but you would do well to put more work into genetic selection of ‘Sunroot’, Helianthus tuberosus, for better production in the Tropics, than to encourage the planting of Mandioca, the native Tupy/Guarani name for Cassava.
        I could not possibly disagree with you more on the utility of the cassava, or mandioca, plant, as I lived with it and ate it for 12 1/2 years during my development work, traveling throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. The plant makes a toothless cretin out of every child in every culture that adopts it as a staple, as the “edible” portion has no calcium and no protein worth considering for the alimentation of a juvenile of our species.
        Tho’ the leaves are also cooked for 7 days to make them “edible”, the truth is there is no portion of any plant of this genus that is advantageous for any human to eat, unless that is the last “edible” biomass left on Earth.
        There are actually three species of the genus, which are all extremely difficult to differentiate from each other, even by the people who have lived on them all their lives. Only one can be eaten, by people with poor gut flora/fauna, if it is cooked at least once; another can be eaten, if it has the juice all squeezed out of it, and it is cooked for days; and the third being too deadly to eat, no matter how long it’s cooked, which kills several whole families, every year, throughout the world, where this plant has been spread, by idiots and criminals, who like to enslave the cretin cultures that it creates.
        Now, I love tapioca as much as the next kid-at-heart, but I have been over half this World, eaten just about everything that you can imagine, and NEVER get indigestion from any ‘food’, but MANDIOCA or CASSAVA IS NOT FOOD!!! It gives me immediate indigestion, unless it is cooked, twice (my favorite is boiled, then french-fried). Like that, it CAN be eaten by adult humans, but that does not mean that it SHOULD be eaten, and, it is absolutely not food for any child!
        Please stop giving your readers the incomplete story, glossing over the dangers of this plant, and encouraging its cultivation as any form of food, desirable for our survival as a species.
        Sunroot, on the other hand, is an excellent food, which does not cause gas, at all, to anyone with all of the full complement of probiotic gut flora/fauna, that its consumption will encourage over the first few days of eating it (just start out slow, by eating the raw root, unwashed, right out of the ground, as the appropriate bacteria/fungi cluster around its roots in the soil), and the Sunroot grows from Tierra del Fuego to Alaska.
        Sunroot truly is the greatest of all survival foods, and, as you say, quite beautiful, in every respect.
        Most known Sunroot cultivars have only one drawback, which is that they need the longer day period and cool dormancy period of higher latitudes to be massively productive, as is its nature.
        It would doing mankind a great service, if you would use your location and your considerable knowledge to develop cultivars, which bring the bounty of the Sunroot farther to the South.
        I would love to help you accomplish this, if you are willing, and I would be willing to share with you, or anyone interested, all of the cultivars at my disposal, toward that purpose.
        Sincerely,
        Larry M. Aden, Chief Engineer/Exec. Dir.
        EdenSustainableTechnologies.com
        lma@amass.us
        Executive Director/ Sunroot Prog. Dir.
        Prairie Gold Hearth Foods, LLC
        yourprairiegold@gmail.com
        Cell: 712-660-3949

        • Hi Larry,

          Thank you for your in-depth comment.

          First – “you would do well to put more work into genetic selection of ‘Sunroot’, Helianthus tuberosus, for better production in the Tropics”

          Interesting you should mention that. I’m working on it. I planted five different varieties this year and am hoping to cross them together. One type from Tennessee yielded much larger tubers than expected this year, after failing to do much last season. Hope springs eternal.

          “Please stop giving your readers the incomplete story, glossing over the dangers of this plant, and encouraging its cultivation as any form of food, desirable for our survival as a species.”

          I’m not deliberately “glossing over” anything. My experience with cassava has not been as negative as yours, though I haven’t had to live on it as a staple. Though it’s not an ideal food by any stretch, it is a reliable crop in warmer climates. My low-carbohydrate diet means I don’t consume it much, but it will keep you from starving in a crisis due to its high carbohydrate content and perennial nature. It’s difficult to find perennial roots that are near as reliable and easy to grow.

          The main variety that I cultivate is a “sweet” Indian type and has never given me indigestion (though sunchokes do, likely because of the inulin/gut flora you mentioned). We boil it until soft, then fry it.

          My goal is to make sure people live in a crisis, not to give long-term health advice or get folks eating something that’s going to kill them. If I believed cassava was dangerous, I would avoid it. Yet with how many folks eat cassava around the world, I can’t quite believe it’s the villainous scourge you envision.

          • David, it is, indeed, obvious that you have only the best intentions to help your fellow man survive, and, tho’ it is true that the English spread cassava all over the planet, so that, now, many millions of people do eat it, and feed it to their children, on a daily basis, today, that fact is no proof that it is healthful sustenance for a human child.
            I saw plenty of evidence to the contrary, in my 12 1/2 years engaged in development work, throughout the Americas.
            Children need about three times the protein that cassava has to support proper brain development, and 10 to 12 times the calcium to supply proper bone growth.
            The last time that I checked most of the human species is regularly engaged in activities which are detrimental to their own ultimate survival. Should those many millions become many billions, that still would not entice me to follow their lead.

  2. Christopher de Vidal on said:

    I always chuckle at the “invasive” adjective… Food that doesn’t stop. What a good problem to have.

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