Girasole: Turning to the Sun


By Brook Le Van


Fall 2009



What is good is given back.
— Anonymous

There is a food crop and a person who, individually and in
relation to others, exemplify the kind of energy we need to
survive the coming challenges in our world. Both are key
to our efforts to resettle America. Both are gifts, should we be lucky
enough to be in their generous wake. One is a woman: Illène Pevec
a humble matriarch, a loving mother and grandmother, community
activist and friend to many in the Roaring Fork Valley. The other is
a tuber called girasole, Italian for “turning to the sun.”
Girasole (helianthus tuberosus) is a member of the same family
as the artichoke, and its taste divulges its heritage. The Native
Americans called the plant sunroot, but you might recognize it as a
sunchoke or a Jerusalem artichoke, common names used here in the
crop’s homeland, North America. This delicious tuber has traveled
to many lands and become part of countless cultures. The same is
true for Illène. Everywhere she goes, she brings with her stories, seeds,
rootstock, enough energy for three and enthusiasm for six or seven.
Life for Illène is rich in family, community and activism, from
Brazil to Vancouver to Carbondale. Pivotal for Illène was a visit to
her Brazilian homeland when she was 15 years old. “When I saw the
children begging in the streets for food I made a commitment to
work with children,” she says. “It set my course for a life of working
toward social change.”
Gardening is the predominant life thread with which she sows it
all together. Her first school community garden was the Spirit of Nature
garden in Vancouver, at an inner-city school of primarily indigenous
and refugee children. She led a group that transformed a space
being used to solicit children into prostitution into a living food, culture
and arts center, a “grounds for living” on the school property.
Next, she returned to Brazil, where she took on the challenges of
its economically depressed urban neighborhoods. She worked with
young people to clean up trash heaps, turning them into beautiful
and productive food and flower gardens. This led to her earning a
master’s degree, developing curriculum in ethno-botany for school
kids with gardens, and gardening as site and syllabi. She is now working
on her Ph.D., focusing on the sensory and emotional responses of
youth to the processes of gardening. (Next summer, watch for a sunny
line of girasole blooming at the new Roaring Fork High School
Farm School, a food education and security project Illène is coordinating
with the Central Rocky Mountain Permaculture Institute, Fat
City Farmers, Peach Valley CSA and Roaring Fork High School.)
The past few years, at the beginning of each growing season,
Illène has stopped by the Sustainable Settings ranch in Carbondale
to share her anticipation of getting her hands in the dirt. Her latest
visits were all about girasole.

Illène first received the heirloom rootstock of this tuber in 1970, as a gift. She
grows it, eats it and shares it as gifts to all she knows. When she showed up at
the ranch last fall with a bagful, the tubers were so delicious that in our initial
tasting our staff devoured every last one within the week. In spring Illène was
back at the ranch with shovels, buckets and the call to harvest the tubers that had
wintered over. Off we went to her Carbondale Community Garden plot. We dug
and bagged, this time eating few and planting plenty. Those we planted have now
grown tall in their 100-foot-long bed, rising more than 7 feet, their blossoms tracking
the sun — waking in the east and falling asleep, all faces west.
For the past 40 years Illène has planted her heirloom lineage of sunchokes to
multiply the original gift she received. Somewhere in her life’s work, she learned
that to truly own anything she has to give it away. Her gift to us at Sustainable
Settings was the seed of an idea, a new cash crop that could help us generate the
earned income that might help us keep the lights on.

Embedded in this gift cycle is the preservation of genetic and cultural information.
Spread across the land surface of our earth, tuned in to specific environments,
species and individual organisms have evolved as unique creations for the spaces
they inhabit. Paired with this is the preservation of the cultural diversity that harbors
the knowledge of a people tuned in to their local environments, who know the
appropriate species that grow well in niche pockets and who are alert to weather
patterns that aid in the process of gaining sustenance from field and forest.
If you don’t know Illène, hopefully you know someone like her in your community.
Find these people and learn from them. They are the few who understand
the need to shift our values and who celebrate the connections and subsequent
bounty associated with guiding people to the land. If there is hope for us, it is in
our healthy relationships with the soil and plants like girasole, with stewards of
the garden and our victuals. And with mentors like Illène Pevec, who give wholly
of themselves as they — as we all must do — turn toward the sun.



Sunchoke Chips
Courtesy of Illène Pevec
Sunchokes (from 1 to 10 pounds)
Olive oil
Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Wash sunchokes well with a potato
scrubber. Place in a food processor and slice. Drizzle olive oil onto
a baking sheet and rub with your fingers to coat the pan. Spread
the sunchoke slices into a single layer across the baking sheet.
Sprinkle lightly with salt (you can add another herb if you wish.)
Bake until the chips are somewhat dry and have turned a slightly
toasty color. As they dehydrate in the oven, the sunchoke chips
will become very sweet. Cooking times will vary depending on
the amount of sunchokes in the oven at once, so check for doneness
after 45 minutes, and then every 15 minutes so that they
don’t burn. This process works with beets, potatoes, carrots and
parsnips, too. Serve sunchoke chips alone or mixed with other
veggie chips. They make great hors d’oeuvres, snacks or an accompaniment
to a meal in need of a crispy contrast.


The Species:
Girasole, or sunroot, is a member of the
family asteraceae, or compositae (known
as the aster, daisy or sunflower family),
the second largest family of flowering
plants, in terms of number of species.
Sunroots are an herbaceous perennial
plant that can reach 9 feet in the field,
with high yields, typically 8 to 10 tons per
acre (outproducing the potato, for example,
four to one). They also make a great,
quick windbreak in your garden. Besides
the edible tuber they produce, their
above-ground stems and foliage make
for great hog, cattle, goat and sheep forage.
They have also recently been used
as biofuel, using inulin-adapted strains
of yeast for fermentation. Germans have
even found the root useful in making a
type of liquor.
Sunroot grows well in almost all soil, except
very heavy clay, and thrives best in
alkaline soil. They should be planted in
spring through early summer and harvested
fall through early winter. Tubers left in
the ground that are not harvested will restart
The tuber contains inulin, a form of starch
that is a polysaccharide from which fructose
can be produced. Inulin has cholesterol-
lowering properties and probiotic/
prebiotic qualities. Sunroots are high in
iron and potassium, and a source of fiber,
niacin, thiamine, phosphorus and copper.
Sunroots can be stir-fried in oil, baked
whole or sliced, steamed, boiled or eaten
raw. To preserve the texture, it is best to
steam, rather than boil, them. They can
be included in salads and stir-fries, providing
a crunchy texture. Their sweetness
may increase if they are refrigerated after
harvesting. Since many nutrients are
stored just under the skin, it’s best not to
peel them. Cooking them with the skins
on may make the skins darken because
of their high iron content. Once cut, sunroots
discolor quickly, so cut them close
to serving time or cut and then immerse
them in water with lemon or vinegar to
prevent oxidation.