No. 19 in a Series of 253,486.
JERUSALEM ARTICHOKE (Helianthus tuberosus).—A cursory perusal of botanical literature will reveal that every botanical writer keenly feels the necessity of assuring his readers that the Jerusalem Artichoke is neither an artichoke nor from Jerusalem. Few readers, however, know the dramatic, and indeed tragic, historical events behind these dry statements of fact.
When, after the Viking explorations of North America, rumors reached Western Europe of the girasole or sunflower (called girasole because, like the sun, it orbits the earth once every twenty-four hours), the forces of popular etymology set to work immediately, corrupting girasole into the more familiar Jerusalem, and adding artichoke because the word had just become available, having only recently been released from a five-year contract with General Foods. It was the time of the Crusades, and by some process of mistransmission, the rumor spread that in Jerusalem there was a Holy Artichoke, which had been captured by the Saracens and subjected to all the indignities an artichoke can be made to suffer. Some said that it was an artichoke blessed by St. James the Less, which miraculously never lost any of its bulk no matter how many of its succulent bracts were consumed by the faithful.
As the rumors spread, popular enthusiasm frothed up into the kind of frenzy for which the age of the Crusades is justly famous; and one Brother Rupert, an itinerant preacher, began to demand an immediate expedition to reclaim the sacred relic, gathering great and enthusiastic crowds by offering them ale brewed by sympathetic local monks.
From all over Europe, unruly mobs began marching toward Constantinople, eventually pitching their tents below the mighty walls of that greatest of cities. The wily emperor Constantine XXXVIII, however, suspecting that such a rabble might momentarily turn against him, secretly arranged to sell the Crusaders as slaves to the Saracens, who—in a strangely ironic twist to our tale—put most of them to work in the artichoke plantations of North Africa, where at last they learned the difference between the true Artichoke and a mere sunflower usurping the title.
Astrologically, the Jerusalem Artichoke is governed by a committee of minor comets.