What the heck is that? Salsify, the 'oyster vegetable'

“By some highly valued, for its white eatable root, which grows a foot or more long. Some have carried their fondness for it so far as to call it vegetable oyster.”

— Bernard McMahon, “The American Gardener’s Calendar,” 1806

Are you growing salsify in your garden? If so, then you are a rarity, because Tragopogon porrifolius, sometimes called oyster plant, has never really caught on in the U.S. as a kitchen garden crop.

Thomas Jefferson would be sorely disappointed to know that, because he enthusiastically cultivated “salsifia” in his vegetable garden at Monticello.

Jefferson claimed that the white-flesh of the 10- to 12-inch tapered roots of salsify taste better than carrots, and he reserved space for a few rows in Square XIV every year of his retirement at Monticello (1809-1826). He wrote in his journal on Nov. 25, 1814, that 11 bushels of salsify “made this year” from the garden, a proud accomplishment during a tumultuous year that saw the burning of the Capitol in Washington by British troops and the end of the War of 1812.

An aficionado of French cuisine, Jefferson’s meals frequently included salsify roots, which were peeled, boiled and then diced, mashed or fried in batter. In fact, every part of this biennial member of the sunflower family is edible. In addition to the root, the young leaves can be eaten as a salad green, tender shoots can be eaten like asparagus, and even the unopened flower head (formed in spring the second year after planting) can be pickled. Blooming salsify plants also provide a pretty display of purple daisy-like flowers that bees love.

A native of Mediterranean regions of southern Europe, the roots of wild salsify (T. pratensis) were recommended by ancient Greek physicians Theophrastus (371-287 BCE) and Dioscorides (40-90 CE) for ailments of the liver and gall bladder. Cultivation of salsify began during the 16th century in Italy and France, where it is still commonly grown today, along with a similar plant called black salsify (Scorzonera hispanica), which has dark roots with white flesh and broader leaves than common salsify.

Although you won’t find salsify in most grocery stores, it’s a highly nutritious food packed with protein, fiber, vitamins and minerals. The health benefits of salsify are reported to include minimizing the risk of heart attacks, strokes, osteoporosis and arthritis; boosting the immune system; and improving blood circulation, digestion and cognitive function.

Sow salsify seeds along with other cool season crops July through September for fall/winter harvests (or wait until next April or May to plant). The OSU Extension Service recommends the Mammoth Sandwich Island and French Blue Flowered varieties of common salsify and the Giant Black Russian variety of black salsify. I’ve found seeds through Seed Savers and Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds.

Choose a site that will receive full sun, and provide a rich, sandy loam that drains well and is free of rocks and twigs. Sow 2-3 seeds in one hole about ½-inch deep, then thin seedlings when they’re 2 inches tall to 4-6 inches apart. Mulch to help keep the bed moist and free of weeds and provide shade during hot weather. Also, go easy on the nitrogen fertilizer, as it can cause salsify roots to fork and split.

Salsify matures in 120-150 days. Some say the roots taste better when they mature during cool weather and are harvested after the first or second frost. The roots can withstand freezing temperatures, so some gardeners leave them in the ground until they want to eat them, while others remove the tops after harvesting and store the roots in the refrigerator for up to a month. Roots left in the ground over winter will produce edible shoots the following spring.

— Rhonda Nowak is a Rogue Valley gardener, writer and teacher. Email her at rnowak39@gmail.com.

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