Cultivation techniques Heirloom plants

Wild salsify knocking on the garden door

Last July, in a cluster of kale, parsnip, chamomile and beetberry volunteers I had left growing in the compost area, I was suddenly confronted with a familiar and unmistakeable seed head – salsify! Now I have not grown (nor seen) salsify in the gardens in more than 20 years, and never noticed it “in the wild” here in northern Vermont. I thought that this must have been the result of getting rid of some of the really old stuff in our seed collection, hence the plant’s proximity to the compost pile. However, that didn’t really make sense because salsify seed is supposed to be very short-lived, and I tend to hang on to seed way too long. I dutifully collected the seed last summer, and never got around to planting it.

summer 2008

Mysterious salsify volunteers rescued from the compost staging area.

I wasn’t very knocked out by salsify root when we grew it in the past, and after a few seasons didn’t bother with it. I never thought to try eating the greens, though I should have guessed that they might be worth while. The deer seemed to prefer salsify to all of the other bounties of our garden, and would consistently eat the plants to the ground.

Several weeks ago, in the spot in the compost area where I had collected seed last year, I was scorching the earth with the flame weeder and just in time recognized the foliage of a handful of salsify plants. I certainly would not have recognized them if I hadn’t known they might be there, because the leaves look like some kind of thick grass. Anyway, I can take a hint, so I dug them up and gave them their own spot in a proper garden bed.

summer 2008

Shortly after that, Mr. H at Subsistence Pattern did a great post about salsify and scorzonera, which got me more enthusiastic about giving salsify another try, and raised the question of what sort of salsify this might indeed be.

Then, last week, I was scything one of our little meadows, getting to the end of a big patch of buttercups in bloom, and buttercup, buttercup, bu..?!? Once again, I was brought up short on one of my (almost) ruthless missions of herbicide by… salsify. It just happened to be flowering and open, which was very fortuitous for it, because the flowers are only open a couple of hours each day and most likely I would have mowed it down if I hadn’t been piqued by the weird buttercups.

So, part of the mystery is solved. It’s a case of tragopogon pratensis, meadow salsify, and not t. porrifolius, the more common garden salsify (what I had grown before), which has purple flowers. All the "wild" salsifies in North America are originally from Europe and Asia, and are escapees from cultivation. Now, I have been a student of the local flora for more than 40 years, and have never come across salsify in the wild. I am wondering whether it’s a new-comer to the neighborhood, or whether I just didn’t notice it before. It would be easy to miss.

summer 2008

At any rate, we’ll have another go. Any early spring greens are valuable to us, and I may not have given the roots a fair culinary trial in the first go-round. I’m reading now that the roots should be cooked with their skins on for flavor, then the skins removed before eating. Any body know about this?

5 Responses to “Wild salsify knocking on the garden door”

  1. Mike says:

    We have an abundance of the wild salsify in our area as well. One would almost think that the purple headed garden salsify had crossed with the yellow flowering scorzonera creating the wild salsify. The wild has the flower of scorzonera but the leaves of a salsify. I checked, and apparently none of the three will cross with each other… interesting.

    When I cook the roots of either plant, they are scrubbed clean of debris and eaten with the skin in tact. The skin, like on a potato is the most nutritious part. You might try it both ways and see what you prefer. We really enjoy them steamed with baby potatoes and carrots.

    If you in any way like the wild plant, the garden variety, especially scorzonera, is much better in both flavor and root size. The wild roots leave much to be desired but their spring greens are great. My salsify seed has been collected and I am still waiting on the scorzonera to finish flowering. If you would like, I will send seeds of both your way this fall along with the red endive. The trick to a nice root on either one of these is to plant them as you would a parsnip, in deeply dug loose soil.

  2. gayle says:

    No help here. I wouldn’t know salsify if it stood up and bit me on the butt.
    I didn’t even try parsnips until I was in my 40’s, because my mother didn’t like them and always sneakily threw away any that we were given. How could she have not liked PARSNIPS!?!

  3. the extreme gardener says:

    Mike – I’d love some seed. I think the tragopogons are trying to tell me they ought to be in our garden – plants do communicate with us in interesting ways.
    First time around, I think I had read, and thus foolishly believed, that the roots should be peeled, which would account for my memories of an insipid white root that was fussy to prepare (my culinary fault!). Funny, cause I NEVER peel potatoes, apples, cukes, etc.
    It’s possible your local tragopogons are hybrids. Check this out . I know Ashworth (Seed to Seed) says they don’t cross, but there’s pretty good documentation of crossing in the wild, specifically in your neighborhood…

    Gayle – maybe she never was served properly harvested and prepared parsnips. I think parsnips are subject to a lot of culinary abuse and misunderstanding, resulting in unfounded prejudice…

  4. Mike says:

    Yes, the Ashworth book is where I read that they will not cross. I’m not at all surprised the interesting article you listed insinuates otherwise.

    I will send seed your way this fall and we can both watch to see if there are any unusual variations. I honestly can not remember where I first got the seed, it is quite possible they are a hybrid plant.

  5. Darrell says:

    Was wondering if you have Pawpaw trees growing in your area. They are North America’s largest native fruit and sort of resemble a mango.

Leave a Reply