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.
Scorzonera is a root vegetable with an awkward name and an ugly appearance but with a delicious oyster-like flavour. ‘Duplex’ is a fine selection with long, truncated roots with a deep black skin. The root is considered to be finer textured, and remains so further into the winter.
Duplex is popular with home gardeners, it is known for its resistance to running from seed it also appears hardier than other selections. The foliage does not die down during the heat of the summer so the plants can be also be grown for perennial greens.
The new growth at the top of the plants, called chards can also be used in spring, cooked like asparagus or used in salads. These tops can be forced in darkness, much as chicory. The roots can be peeled, boiled, chopped into pieces and served with a tasty sauce for a gourmet delicacy.
Oh, and if you let them flower, you will be pleasantly surprised. They have gorgeous bright yellow flowers that exude a pleasant aroma redolent of sweet chocolate.
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.
The key when cooking is to remove the skins after boiling, otherwise preparing them can be cumbersome. Clean the roots and cut in to short lengths and boil in salted water for 25 minutes. Drain and then rub off the skins. Toss in a little melted butter
There are two ways of cooking these vegetables: the roots can be washed, and boiled or steamed before peeling when cold. They are used in stews, casseroles, baked dishes and soups, and cooked before use in stir-fries, and can be sliced and fried too.
The new growth at the top of the plants, called chards can also be used in spring, cooked like asparagus or used is salads. These tops can be forced in darkness, much as chicory, which is also related.
Entire roots will keep fresh all winter if stored in a cool dark place, due to their robust black corky skin. In root cellars they may keep fresh well into springtime. It is, however, very hardy and will grow well in most cool-temperate climates.
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.
Scorzonera hispanica is native to Southern Europe and the Near East. As is indicated by its binomial name, it is generally thought to have spread to the rest of Europe from Spain, but the first mention of the vegetable by a Western writer came from Leonhard Rudolf, who reported seeing scorzonera at the market of Aleppo in Syria, in 1575.
The Celtic and Germanic peoples are believed to have eaten the black salsify, which was considered efficacious against the bubonic plague and snake bites until the 16th century. The plant was being cultivated as a vegetable in Italy and France by 1660 and, soon after, the Belgians were growing vast fields of it.
Pronounced Scorzo-neera, this perennial member of the Asteraceae, the sunflower family is cultivated as a root vegetable in the same way as Salsify (Tragopogon porrifolius), also in the sunflower family. Although Scorzonera closely resembles Salsify in root shape and internal root colour, and both are members of the Asteraceae they are not closely related taxonomically.
The Diccionario de la lengua española of the Real Academia Española mentions that the name derives from the Latin meaning 'black root' because of its external colour. In Italian, too, scorza means 'root' and nera 'black'. However, it was also was considered to be an antidote to the bite of poisonous animals, as documented in Mattioli's Epistolarium medicinalium libri quinque, published in 1561, in Spanish it is called 'escorzonera', which means 'herb against escuerzo' (the toad.)
Scorzonera is commonly known as Black salsify, Spanish salsify, Black oyster plant, Serpent root, Viper's herb or Viper's grass. The reference to snakes comes from the Spanish word 'scurzo,' meaning viper.
- Additional Information
Packet Size 1 gram Average Seed Count 70 Seeds Common Name Oyster Plant Other Common Names Black Salsify Family Asteraceae Genus Scorzonera Species hispanica Cultivar Duplex Hardiness Hardy Perennial Time to Sow Sow from early spring on into summer Germination Seeds can take several weeks to germinate Time to Harvest August to September