Salsify is an old ‘heirloom’ or ‘heritage’ vegetable. It was eaten by people in the ‘ancient’ civilisations of Rome and Greece. It was widely eaten in England during the Victorian period, especially in the late winter months when there wasn’t much fresh food around.
Generally, the root was eaten but the young leaves and the flowers are also edible. Salsify went out of favour in the late nineteenth century and is now little known and rarely eaten, at least here in the western suburbs of Sydney. It is known by various common names, one being ‘oyster plant’ because the root is likened to the taste of the well-known seafood. some have likened it to asparagus.
Salsify, Tragopogon porrifolius, is a biennial plant which means that it is sown in one year and flowers in the next. All that is seen above ground, at least for the first twelve months or so, are slowly growing, grass-like leaves, up to 2cm wide, that are similar to Lomandra (an Australian native perennial). The plants mature, in our garden in Emu Heights, NSW, at around 70cm tall but they can grow to 100cm.
The daisy-like flowers, which only open in direct sunlight, give rise to another common name, ‘Jerusalem Star’. They appear in Spring from seed sown in autumn the previous year. The plant can be grown as an ornamental: it’s blue-green, grass-like leaves providing a foil for other greens in the garden and serving as a backdrop for brightly coloured flowers. To keep salsify growing permanently, flowering every Spring, you would need to grow new plants every year.
The flowers give way to a stunning seed head which looks like a giant dandelion. It reminds me of those popular light fittings of the 1970s, that look like a giant ball made up of cones! In more modern terms, the seed head looks similar to a ‘crystal sputnik chandelier’ (go on, look it up! I’ll wait!!) Unfortunately, like its cousin the dandelion, the seed blows away in the wind, and the plant has become a garden escapee (aka ‘weed’) in some parts of south-eastern Australia.
Does that mean you should not grow it? Of course not. The solution is simple, if you are not collecting seed for next season’s plants, simply dead-head the flowers when they cease to look attractive! If you are collecting seed, put a bag over the dying flower head.
HOW TO GROW AND HARVEST SALSIFY
Sow seed, in Spring or Autumn, 6mm deep, directly where you want the plants to grow, or in cardboard (toilet roll tubes are perfect) or paper pots to transplant when they are 15cm tall (or when the roots show out the bottom of the pot). Don’t use an egg carton for this, they are too shallow to allow the tap root to develop properly. The straighter the root, the easier it is to peel.
The soil must be free-draining and ‘fluffy’, all pebbles and sticks removed, to a depth of at least 30cm. Unlike carrots, salsify requires a fairly rich soil – extra nitrogen does not induce forking as much as obstacles in the soil will! Any rocks or other hard structures in the soil, including clay, will cause the root to bend in an attempt to find a softer place to grow. This results in deformed roots which are still edible but hard to peel. The plants are slow-growing so be patient.
When the top of the root begins to emerge from the soil surface, or about 100-120 days after planting, they can be dug up; they will not simply ‘pull out’ like carrots and parsnips. If you’re not sure, dig around the root with your fingers: ours always grow like skinny carrots, but some people have told me that they can grow quite thick! Once the plant begins to grow flowers, the roots become tough. The root in the photo above was from a plant which we allowed to go to seed.
They are cooked by roasting, steaming, and can be served mashed or puréed. Their odd shape can make them difficult to peel. The skin is thick and rough. Perhaps the difficulty of preparation makes them an unpopular choice in an age where we want meals quickly with minimum fuss and preparation time?
FUN FINAL FACT
There is another plant that is from a different family which is known as ‘Black Salsify’ (Scorzonera hispanica). It is a perennial plant, the roots have black skin and white flesh. The taste is said to be similar. Why not try one or both in your garden?
Until next Friday, when Mark returns with another DIY post…