Corporate chain grocery stores and the industrialisation of our food supply may have decreased the diversity of vegetables people consume. While there may be a number of movements working to combat such trends, more adventurous gardeners have always found and grown these lively vegetables.
Salsify and scorzonera are good examples of vegetables that have been around for centuries but have eluded the grocery stores. Scorzonera has an oyster-like taste while Salsify's flavour has been described as more of a cross between oysters and asparagus. Some people complain that salsify is more fibrous, and harder to peel than scorzonera, while others remain loyal to Salsify. The plants are grown the same way. Grow small plantings of both, experiment a little and decide for yourself.
Salsify may be a chic new vegetable with the foodie crowd but it just happens to be an old-fashioned heritage root crop. This unprepossessing Mediterranean winter vegetable has a delicate taste, ever so slightly sweet, some say slightly reminiscent of oysters – so much so that “oyster plant” is one of its common names. Although primarily a root crop, the young shoots called ‘chards’, flower buds, and flowering shoots can also be eaten.
Naturally a biennial plant salsify is grown as an annual and harvested in its first year. The leaves look like a clump of grass and the root is about the size of a large carrot, bumpy like a parsnip with beige skin.
When cultivated for a few years, salsify will produce stalks that bear purple flowers that suit the garden as well as the wildflower meadow.
Salsify’s grass-like tops are slightly sweet and tender enough to be eaten in salads, the roots of the plant are dug up and cooked as you would parsnips. Salsify can be served simply as a side dish or can be cooked as fritters, sautéed in hot butter until golden or served roasted. Once you've given it a go, you will not look back.
Sowing: Sow in Spring or in Autumn
Due to the plants long taproot the seedlings do not transplant well so seeds are best sown directly into the garden. As with any root crops, you don’t want any obstacles in your soil. Dig your chosen spot well, and remove any rocks. Loosening the soil to at least a foot in depth to accommodate the probing roots will be beneficial at harvesting time.
Seeds are best sown about two weeks before you expect your last frost of the season, in April to May. In areas without frosts they can be sown in autumn or from February onwards.
Sow the seeds 12mm (½in) deep, and either sown every 10cm (4in) or just sprinkled out in a row. As they start to grow, you can thin out the weaker seedlings and just leave the stronger plants with a spacing of 10cm (4in) between them. Seeds can take several weeks to germinate, so be patient and keep the soil moist until they do.
The crop requires very little attention and is rarely attacked by pests. It is slow to grow and most weeds can easily overwhelm your plants, so pay close attention to keeping them under control. Weed carefully around each plant, if using a hoe; avoid at all costs touching the crown of the plant.
It doesn’t thrive well in hot weather so if you can have some light shading for your plants around the middle of summer, they will do better. Water often and regularly, if you water inconsistently, the roots can split because the started to grow too fast. Keep it even, and never let the soil dry out completely. Apply a mulch in summer.
This is a light-feeding plant, so you really shouldn’t need to add any fertiliser through the year unless you are growing in very poor quality soil. A bit of compost at planting time should suffice for the year.
Harvesting: October to February; can extend to the end of April.
Roots are generally ready to dig once they reach about 30cm (12in) in length, usually from mid October onwards. After four months, dig up a couple and see if they are ready to harvest. If your soil is loose, you may be able to pull them up by their leafy tops. With more compact soil, this may end up breaking your salsify. In that case, use patience and a good garden fork to gently dig them up.
The roots can withstand some freezing in the soil, so you can leave them in the ground after the frost arrives. A later harvest means more of that unique flavour for your roots. If your winters are mild enough that the ground doesn’t freeze solid, you may even be able to continue digging up fresh salsify all winter long instead of storing them inside. Otherwise lift some in November and store as for carrots.
Prepare the roots by peeling to reveal the milky white flesh. Place in a large bowl of cold water with a dash of lemon to avoid discoloration.
The roots can be sautéed in hot butter until golden and sprinkled with parsley just before serving. Roasted roots are equally delicious: place in an oven tin, trickle olive oil over, season and roast for 20 minutes in an oven gas mark 6/200C/400F.
It can be served as a side dish, treated as you would parsnip, cook as fritters, salsify gratin baked in cream is gorgeous. If you prefer a cold version prepare as you would a leek vinaigrette or a celeriac remoulade.
The roots will need to be peeled before you cook them, but its best to store the roots unpeeled. Keep roots in a plastic bag in the refrigerator for up to a week. You can also keep salsify for several months if you have a place with high-humidity to store them. If you don’t have a root cellar, try a bucket filled with damp sand or sawdust. Keep it somewhere cool, but above freezing.
If you want to get seeds from your plants for future planting, let a few plants remain in the ground and not harvested. They will naturally come back in the spring, and continue to grow all through the next year until they bloom and produce seeds. The seeds have a downy sail, just like dandelion seeds, if you are collecting seeds, make sure to do so before the winds take them away.
Tragopogon porrifolius is a common biennial wildflower, native to Mediterranean regions of Europe
Historically the plant was cultivated for its used as a vegetable. It is mentioned by classical authors such as Pliny the Elder. Cultivation in Europe began in the 16th century in France and Italy. In Great Britain it was initially grown for its flower and later cultivated for its used as a vegetable. It became popular in the 18th century. Presently the root is cultivated and eaten most frequently in France, Germany, Italy and Russia.
The genus name Tragopogon is derived from two Greek words tragos meaning goat and pogon meaning beard, suggested by its prominent, feathery hairs when in seed. In Europe it also bore the common name ‘goat’s beard.’
The species name porrifolius means that the leaves look like those of the leek, the scientific name of which is Allium porrum.
Salsify was an upper-crust name, a Norman importation from France, from salsafis.
The Latin pedigree of the term has been debated, offering competing stories that it originally meant ‘rock-rubber’ or else ‘salt maker.’ Both proposed etymologies referenced the root, rather than the blossom.
In America, the slender, pale root became, curiously, a monument to the people’s insatiable desire for oysters, earning the vegetable the nickname, oyster-plant.
- Additional Information
Packet Size 1 gram Average Seed Count 80 Seeds Common Name Oyster Plant Other Common Names White Salsify Family Asteraceae Genus Tragopogon Species porrifolius Cultivar Sandwich Island Hardiness Hardy Biennial Time to Sow Sow from early spring on into summer Germination Seeds can take several weeks to germinate Time to Harvest August to September