How to grow salsify?

Salsify, a root vegetable that does double duty

Readers of this column have had some strange dishes offered up to them over the years. Of the lesser-known crops I’ve suggested you try, a few might not have won you over. Was the saltwort a little too prickly, the Malabar spinach too viscous? Then again, maybe you found great uses for them.

I figure being adventurous in what you grow makes gardening more fun and can lead to new favorites. And the reason many of these foods are obscure may have more to do with the needs of long-distance shipping than whether they are good to eat. This is what gives the home gardener or local grower such an advantage. It might seem like the supermarkets have everything, but here’s the big secret: Potentially, you have a much wider repertoire.

So you’re going to have to trust me about salsify. This is a white root — rather like a parsnip but skinnier — that keeps beautifully in the ground. Like the parsnip, it’s planted in spring, as early as the ground can be worked, then allowed to grow all summer and fall until the first frosts bring out its flavor. You can then pull it up during thaws, saving some under refrigeration if you like, but it will shrivel a little and is best dug and eaten fresh.

When you do this, don’t be dismayed by the way those roots look. They are tan and shaggy with coarse side roots. They make me think of the tabloid headline “Movie Stars Without Makeup.” Just wait till they’re all dolled up.

The dolling-up consists of peeling them with a vegetable peeler to reveal the snow-white flesh, then placing them into a bowl of water acidulated with lemon juice, to keep them that way. Or not. If you’re going to brown them in butter it won’t matter, right? And that’s just what I do with them after I’ve steamed them for 15 to 30 minutes, depending on size.

Salsify roots don’t look like much till peeled to reveal white flesh (Eisenhut & Mayer – Wien/GETTY IMAGES)

I also use the greens, which look like tall, wide grass blades. The light-colored part of the leaf, the bottom six inches or so, is tender and delicious, like the bottom of a leek, so it gets a thorough washing and then a quick butter saute, along with the roots.

The most surprising thing about salsify, the first time you eat it, is its flavor. Traditionally it is called “oyster plant,” a name as inaccurate as it is unappetizing. The roots taste nothing like oysters, and nothing like parsnips either. They taste like artichoke hearts — unlike the so-called Jerusalem artichokes that are said to taste like artichokes but don’t.

This is a great two-in-one crop. Greens and roots tend to nourish us in different ways, and the role of roots is to bring up minerals from deep below the soil, especially a taprooted plant such as salsify. That’s why it’s important to give these crops a deeply cultivated soil with plenty of compost dug in. And by the way, have you ever tried two of salsify’s even more obscure taprooted cousins, scolymus and scorzonera. Are you curious?

Damrosch is a freelance writer and the author of “The Garden Primer.”

Read more about growing your own food and vegetable gardens .

An Ancient Vegetable

Salsify, also known as Oyster plant or vegetable oyster, was popular with the ancient Greeks who called it “the billy goat’s beard” for the silky filaments adorning the seed. The Romans increased it’s status, depicting it in frescoes in Pompeii. The famous Roman gourmet Apicius developed several recipes dedicated to Salsify and Pliny the Elder mentions it several times in his writings.

Europeans know the more common and darker scorzonera, meaning “black bark” in Italian. Salsify is regaining popularity with market and home gardeners for the delicately tasty roots and chicory flavored leaves.

Salsify Plant

This cold hardy biennial herb has a moderately thick taproot covered by a light brown skin. It has a purple flower, distinguishing itself from scorzonera by its black root and yellow flowers.

Get your Salsify seeds here!

Edible Parts of the Plant

Salsify Root

The entire plant is edible when young and the root is eaten after maturing.

Young roots are eaten raw in salads, or are boiled, baked, and sautéed once mature. They are added to soups or are grated and made into cakes. The flower buds and flowers are added to salads or preserved by pickling. Young flower stalks are picked, cooked, dressed and eaten like asparagus. The seeds are sprouted and eaten like alfalfa sprouts for a refreshing and unique flavor addition.

Salsify Fritter

Cooked and puréed roots coated in egg batter and flour then pan or deep-fried to a crispy golden brown make Salsify fritters.

The Salsify root stores its carbohydrates as inulin instead of starch, which turns to fructose instead of glucose during digestion. This is ideal for diabetics as it reduces their glucose load. Most enjoy the flavor of the cooked roots over the raw.

Salsify Seedhead

Planting Seeds

Seeds are direct sown in early March to April then harvested in October. The slender, grass-like leaves normally grow to about 3 feet tall and one purple petalled flower per stalk. As the seeds mature, the flower heads turn into fluffy white puff-balls like dandelion heads and scatter on the wind.

Young Salsify Root

The root is ready for harvest in the fall when the leaves begin to die back. Flavor improves after a few frosts. Dig the roots out whole with a garden spade or fork to avoid breaking them. Only dig what you need at one time, because the roots are best fresh. Salsify will overwinter, tolerating hard frosts and even freezes.

Get your Salsify seeds here!

NOT QUITE LOVE AT FIRST SIGHT

In our pursuit of the forgotten vegetables of the world, I had heard of most of the roots and tubers that we unearthed. But this was a new one to me.

“It is not only the shops to blame, but the select few already in the know.”

First, I had to find it. This is not an easy feat and is the sad truth of our forgotten vegetables – the most comprehensive of supermarkets and the most refined farmer’s markets of the world seem to have forgotten them. Having yet to uncover one, it is my thinking that it is not only the shops to blame, but the select few already in the know. Those who are happily keeping hushed, the way we do about those rare mountain caves or coffee spots that are too good to share.

Having resorted to images on foodies’ blogs, I can confirm that this parsnip lookalike is both unique and boasts qualities worth getting to know – even if it’s not love at first sight.

“You didn’t think that they grew out of a can, did you?”

SALSIFY VS SCORZONERA

Perhaps you have heard of the salsify, but don’t recognise the brown root before you. That’s because in the school canteens of your childhood they were always presented in small, neat white segments. You didn’t think that they grew out of a can, did you?

Before we talk about taste, we must look at the two types of salsify.

Purple or common salsify roots and leaves ©Jujub-en-cuisine

1. Salsify, also known as Tragopogon porrifolius, purple or common salsify, Jerusalem star, goatsbeard, vegetable oyster and oyster plant, is paler and considered to be sweeter and silkier.

2. Scorzonera, also called Scorzonera hispanica, black salsify, Spanish salsify, black oyster plant, serpent root, viper’s herb or viper’s grass, is darker and crispier.

Did those tiny buds on your tongue perk up at the sound of “oyster”? Well, tell them to sit back down. The oyster plant or black oyster plant gained their names due to an alleged similarity between the marine delicacy and our subject. While some can discern this hint of the bivalve, others detect nothing of the sort and liken it, instead, to artichoke hearts.

Native to the Eastern Mediterranean, the bright purple flowers of the common salsify was first cultivated in the 1500s in Italy and France, and later popped up in central and northern Europe. In comparison, the dramatic scorzonera hails from a larger area of Europe and Asia and was first grown in the 17th-century in Spain.

In the 1900s, the unassuming vegetable fell out of favor (names like goatsbeard and serpent root surely don’t help), replaced by tastier, prettier roots.
HOW TO COOK IT LIKE A RELAIS & CHÂTEAUX CHEF?

Salsify and scorzonera can be used interchangeably in cooking. Once you peel them, they become easier on the eye, with a snow-white flesh. Boil or steam them, mash them or cut them into thin strips and fry like potato chips, or add them to your soups and stews. Here are a few dishes for inspiration:

– Fugu and its soft roe in crunchy potatoes, caramelised salsify and a vegetable juice, Chef Hiroshi Yamaguchi’s signature dish for the past 10 years or so, at Kobe Kitano Hotel in Hyogo-ken, Japan.

– Smoked salsify, from Colin Bedford of The Fearrington House Restaurant, who says, “We always have a bacon dish on the menu. We like to serve it with fruits, like apples and vanilla or Medjoul dates, or with a sesame sauce, a strawberry salsa, radishes and a purée of onions and smoked salsify”.

– Salsify, nori, black trumpets from Aubergine at L’Auberge Carmel, by Executive Chef, Justin Cogley.

– Potato crusted oysters with leek veloute, salsify and truffle, a recipe from Chef de Cuisine Nicholas Nutting from Wickaninnish Inn in Tofino British Columbia, Canada.

Salsify Care – How To Grow Salsify Plant

The salsify plant (Tragopogon porrifolius) is an old-fashioned vegetable that is very hard to find in the grocery store, which means that salsify as a garden plant is fun and unusual. Common names for this vegetable include oyster plant and vegetable oyster, due to its distinct oyster flavor. Planting salsify is easy. Let’s take a look at what is required to grow salsify.

How to Plant Salsify

The best time to plant salsify is in early spring in areas that get snow, and early autumn in areas where snow does not fall. It takes about 100 – 120 days for salsify plants to reach harvesting size and they prefer cool weather. When you grow salsify, you’ll be starting with seeds. Plant salsify seeds about 1 – 2 inches apart and ½ inch deep. Seeds should germinate in about a week but can take up to three weeks to sprout.

Once the salsify seeds have sprouted and are about 2 inches high, thin them to 2 – 4 inches apart.

Tips for Salsify Care

Growing salsify will need frequent weeding. Because it is slow growing, fast-growing weeds can quickly overtake it and choke out the salsify plant.

It is best to grow salsify in loose and rich soil. Much like carrots and parsnips, the easier it is for the roots to get into the soil, the bigger the roots will grow, which will result in a better harvest.

When growing salsify, it’s also important to keep the plant well watered. Even and adequate watering will keep the salsify roots from becoming fibrous.

Also be sure to shade plants during high temperatures. Salsify grows best in cooler temperatures and can get tough if the temperatures rise above 85 F. (29 C.) Shading your salsify in temperatures like this can help keep your salsify tender and tasty.

When and How to Harvest Salsify

If you planted your salsify in spring, you’ll be harvesting it in the fall. If you planted salsify in the fall, you’ll harvest it in the spring. Most gardeners who grow salsify recommend waiting until after a few frosts have hit the plant before harvesting. The thought is that the cold will “sweeten” the root. This may or may not be true, but it doesn’t hurt to grow salsify in the ground while there is frost in order to extend the storage time.

When harvesting salsify, keep in mind that the roots can go down a full foot and breaking the root can dramatically reduce the storage time. Because of this, when you harvest salsify, you want to make sure that you lift the whole root out of the ground without breaking it. Use a spading fork or shovel, dig down alongside the plant, being sure to allow for avoiding the root as you go down. Gently lift the root out of the ground.

Once the root is out of the ground, brush the dirt off and remove the tops. Allow the harvested root to dry in a cool, dry place. Once the root is dry, you can continue to store in the cool, dry place or in your refrigerator.

Growing Salsify – How to Grow Salsify

How to Grow Salsify – A Guide to Growing Salsify

Salsify is a root crop very rarely seen in the shops because it’s not commonly known nowadays and so not popular. Yet the flavour of salsify is considered far superior to that of parsnips which it resembles, although a thinner root. Salsify is often referred to the vegetable oyster due to it’s subtle flavour.

Sowing and Growing Salsify

Salsify is very easy to grow so long as the soil has been properly prepared and is available in depth.

Salsify requires a good depth of light soil and is well suited to growing in deep raised beds and large containers. Like other root crops do not manure the year before which will cause the plants to fork. They do benefit from the addition of a general purpose fertiliser the week before sowing.

On clay soils, add sharp sand to the soil and compost to improve the tilth.

For raised beds, sow 3 seeds per position direct in late April, early May at 23cm (9″) each way spacing, 1.5 cm deep thinning out to one plant per station otherwise, for standard row growing space at 23cm (9″) apart in rows 38cm (15″) apart.

Sow from early April to late May depending on your location, hopefully avoiding frosts but fleece if frost threatens germinated seed

The crop should be ready to harvest by October or November but can be left in the ground through to February. Otherwise store as parsnips and carrots in damp sand or peat.

They are trouble free, just water in dry weather.

Preparation is more difficult than the humble parsnip, scalding will make the skin easier to scrape off and then steam or boil until tender. Boiling and then peeling is recommended by some chefs. The difficulties in preparation are repaid with the taste.

You can use salsify in recipes for parsnips but the subtle flavour is best served by just steaming and then serving with melted butter or even Hollandaise sauce.

Further Information on Salsify

Salsify Seed & Plants

  • Salsify from the Allotment Shop
  • Salsify with the Award of Garden Merit

Varieties that have won the RHS Award of Garden Merit will generally give consistent good results

How to Grow Salsify

Days to germination: 21 days
Days to harvest: 120 to 150 days
Light requirements: Light shade in summer
Water requirements: Frequent and consistent watering
Soil: Any soil, as long as it’s loose and stone-free
Container: Not suitable for pots

Introduction

Looking for something a little different for your garden? Salsify is a highly under-appreciated root vegetable that grows like a carrot.

Salsify is a biennial plant, meaning it doesn’t produce seed until its second year. But since you are going to be harvesting the roots after just the first year, it really grows much more like an annual.

The wild form of salsify is sometimes called goatsbeard and it does not produce an edible root. It blooms with a yellow flower, but edible salsify blooms purple.

The term “Spanish salsify” is sometimes used for scorzonera, which grows similar to true salsify but with a black-skinned root. They are related, but not actually the same plant. Don’t get confused between the two when shopping for seeds.

It takes a little bit like oyster, which has earned it the name oyster plant or vegetable oyster in some regions. The root is high in carbohydrates, starches and lot of fiber. Salsify is a good source of several B vitamins and potassium, too. It’s not eaten raw, but rather cooked in various ways (steamed, boiled, etc).

Starting from Seed

Salsify does not transplant well so it is usually just 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

Seeds should be about half an inch deep, and either sown ever 4 inches 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 at least 4 inches between them.

Plant your seeds about 2 weeks before you expect your last frost of the season. They can take several weeks just to sprout, so be patient and keep the soil moist until they do.

Growing Instructions

Salsify is not only slow to germinate, it’s slow to grow as well. Most weeds can easily overwhelm your plants, so you need to pay close attention to keeping them under control.

At first they need lots of sun, but salsify doesn’t thrive well in hot weather. If you can have some light shading for your plants around the middle of summer, they will do better. Growing salsify near any annuals that will grow faster can help produce some shade right when you need it.

Water salsify 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.

This is a light-feeding plant, so you really shouldn’t need to add any fertilizer through the year unless you are growing in very poor quality soil. A bit of compost at planting time should suffice for the year.

Containers

Because of their long roots, salsify doesn’t usually do well in containers. Unlike their carrot cousins, there hasn’t been as much development with salsify to create a shorter rooted variety.

Pests and Disease

The carrot rust fly isn’t only partial to carrots, and can lay its eggs on salsify as well. The small black flies lay their eggs near the base of the plant, and the newly hatched larvae (or maggots) will start to eat the plant’s root. Once the maggots get into your salsify roots, there is little you can do. Spraying with insecticides can keep the adult flies away, and you can also get outdoor sticky traps that will also help control the flies.

Wireworms can also be a problem with salsify, and with many other root vegetables. They look like reddish brown worms, and they are the larvae of the click beetle. Click beetles usually lay their eggs in the grass, so if you are growling salsify near the lawn or in a patch that was recently covered in grass, you are more likely to have problems with wireworms. A trick to help control wireworms is to leave chunks of raw potato nearby. The worms are more likely to choose the potato over your salsify, and you can then just dispose of them.

Harvest and Storage

Roots are generally ready to dig once they reach about 12 inches in length. So after around 4 months, dig up a couple and see if they are ready to go. 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 a shovel or garden fork to gently dig them up.

They 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 oyster flavor 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.

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. When they do flower, the blossoms are very attractive. Salsify flowers are quite large and usually some shade of purple.

The seeds have a downy sail, just like dandelion seeds. So if you are collecting seeds, make sure to do so before the winds take them away.

Salsify 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.

  1. brian raine Says:
    July 15th, 2012 at 2:17 am

    my salsify has grown very tall and is falling over and bloking a path.
    should i cut the tops off.

  2. David Georgi Says:
    June 16th, 2015 at 5:17 pm

    My salsify plants have started to produce blooms. Should I cut them to encourage the roots to grow?

  3. Rob Beaker Says:
    July 1st, 2015 at 2:58 am

    I planted a piece of salsifry root years ago. It seems to come up annually with a yellow flower (not purple)
    Presumably it would still be edible?

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Salsify

A root vegetable that is typically referred to by either of two names, white Salsify or black Salsify. Often confusing to many, the main difference between the two is their appearance while their flavor and use are very similar. White and black Salsify are commonly known as White or Black Oyster plant in reference to their color and flavor for what many historically believed was a root tasting similar to the delicate flavor of oysters. However, the flavor of Salsify is closer to that of asparagus or artichoke hearts than it is to an oyster. The color reference is somewhat appropriate and is used to identify the light or dark colored outer skin of each seperate plant genus. The black Salsify will also often be referred to as Scorzonera or Black Root Salsify.

White Salsify has a light grey or light tan colored skin with tiny hair-like rootlets or branches extending from the base of the root. Appearing much like a short, odd shaped parsnip, the white Salsify has long green leaves that are narrow and pointed, growing from the base of this vegetable. One inch or less in diameter and only two to five inches in length, the white Salsify root is much shorter than the Scorzonera root which may be 6 to 12 inches in length. The Scorzonera or black Salsify is darker colored with a smoother-textured outer skin. It grows into a more evenly tapered form than the white Salsify.

Both types of Salsify can be prepared in the same manner as parsnips and carrots for use in soups, stews and in a variety of savory dishes or simply cooked as vegetable side dishes. Since the skin is thin and the root irregular in shape, it may be wise to first cook this vegetables in boiling water for 10 minutes so the skin can be easily removed. Select those that have a fairly regular form and are not badly gnarled, twisted or contain irregular branches extending from the root. They should be firm in texture, evenly tapered with an appearance and shape similar to a carrot. If the leaves are still attached to the root, remove them as soon as possible for storage. To store, place in a plastic bag and keep in the refrigerator for 6 to 7 days. When preparing, wash and clean thoroughly in cold water. If desired, peel the skin away from the flesh and cut to a size that best suits the food dish. Store cut pieces in water and refrigerate until ready to use. The cut flesh of the Salsify will discolor quickly so the cold water helps to preserve color and flavor. A small amount of lemon juice (2 tablespoons per quart of water) added to the fresh cut pieces placed in water will help to prevent discoloration. When cooking, braise or steam cook the Salsify to make vegetable side dishes or sauteed vegetables. Do not overcook or the Salsify will become mushy. If added to soups and stews, place the Salsify into the ingredients when 30 to 45 minutes remain of cooking time. Both the white and black Salsify are generally available from June through February in some food stores and are often found in ethnic markets such as Italian, Greek and Spanish food stores.

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