An easy to grow, perennial tuber that can look a bit like a tiny Michelin man, with top growth that looks like mint. They are not related to artichokes… though maybe, just maybe … when sautéed in butter it has a taste a little like steamed artichokes.
Stachys affinis – often called Chinese artichokes or crosnes – are in fact in the Lamiaceae family (not the Asteraceae family, like artichokes), which is the one that contains many aromatics like mint, sage, oregano, rosemary, lavender, balms, catnip and thyme. Chinese artichokes do in fact have leaves that look like mint, but they have no aroma at all. This is the first year that I have grown them so I have only a limited amount of experience with them, but I think they’re so crazy looking and tasty that I couldn’t wait to share.
How to grow
I bought these from ‘Suttons’ as part of a gourmet roots collection. They arrived in May as little plants. I have read that they can be grown from the tubers that are planted into the ground from October to March – pointed end up, 5 cm deep and around 30cm apart. Hopefully, what I’ve read about them regrowing from tubers left in the ground will make them an easy to grow perennial in my garden for years to come. This is what piqued my interest when I read about them in my trusty ‘How to grow Perennial Vegetables’ book by Martin Crawford. From digging around I can see how some of these tiny tubers could easily be left behind. I’ll probably keep a few spare tubers at the end of the season in a pot of compost in the shed over the winter as a precaution. The tubers can rot if left in waterlogged soil over winter, but I’ve read that growth in spring can be really early so tubers are best put in in late winter.
They like fertile free draining but moist soil and plenty of sun. Once planted though, they can be ignored. They grow to about 40cm tall. They can grow flowers. Mine didn’t this year, but if they appear it is best to remove them so that energy goes into tubers instead.
A few of my tubers have appeared to be eaten by some mini critter. This looks similar to what happened to some of my carrots this year, where there were tracks on the surface. It only affected about 5 or 6 out of the 50 or so tubers.
How to harvest
These are ready to harvest in the UK from late October. I was planning to leave mine for another month, but a cat made the choice for me by digging up a third of the plants. There were still plenty of tubers, no bigger than my thumb (first week of November). I was surprised by the varying shapes and sizes and the depth at which they grew. The roots are very brittle so it’s not possible to just yank then out by the stems. You need to dig, and quite deep too. I found some tubers about 40cm deep. Apparently thick, organic mulch encourages growth closer to the surface, something I’ll try next year.
Apparently if you leave till first frost, they get sweeter. I’ll let you know if it’s true later in the year. They also don’t store too well once harvested (they had started to go brown at the ends within a day of being in the fridge) so I’ll leave the rest as they are and just have a dig every time I want to cook some. I have read that they store well in the ground as long as it doesn’t become waterlogged.
How to eat
They have a very thin skin (part of the reason they don’t store well) so they don’t need peeling. They can be a bit fiddly to wash. When they come in odd shapes with arms, I’ve found that I’ve had to snap the arms off to access the ingrained soil. Any imperfections can be scrapped off with a nail because they are so delicate.
These can be eaten raw. They have a crispness like water chestnuts and a similar taste, with a hint of radish, but much milder in flavour.
When sauteed in butter they lose a little of that crispness and gain a bit of texture and taste closer to taro. Their flavour deepens and becomes more nutty with a bit of sweetness. When I do think they do taste a little like the steamed heart of a globe artichoke. Just a little mind you, and they don’t have the weird thing that happens with artichokes that make everything else taste sweet.