Salsify is an unusual root vegetable that is becoming increasingly popular. Here is how to grow salsify successfully in your own garden.
For a long time, salsify, also known as oyster root, had vanished from home gardens and been replaced by black salsify, but it has recently begun to reappear. Read on to find out how to grow and care for salsify in the garden, as well as how to use your harvest.
Salsify: origin and characteristics
Salsify (Tragopogon porrifolius) is rather unknown root vegetable in our country nowadays, but that has not always been the case. Some people know it better by its other names, such as oyster root, purple goat’s beard, or vegetable oyster. The plant originated in the eastern Mediterranean region and was introduced by the Romans to the rest of Europe and the British Isles. Its wild form, Tragopogon porrifolius subsp. eriospermus, is still found today in large areas of Greece, Italy and Turkey. It has been used as a vegetable since ancient times. However, salsify has been largely replaced by the closely related black salsify (Scorzonera hispanica), which produces higher yields.
Oyster root, like black salsify, belongs to the Tragopogon genus and thus to the Asteraceae family. The biennial, herbaceous plant is usually only cultivated annually, as its root is harvested. The white taproot is about 20 to 30 cm long and contains lactic acid like black salsify. If left to grow, the plant reaches a height of 60 to 120 cm in the second year and forms several flowers along a blue-green stem. The leaves are narrow, smooth and usually lush green. When it comes to flowering, the typical daisy-like flowers appear in June and July with mauve to purple petals. What makes the salsify flowers unique is their diurnal periodic movement. This means they open in the morning and close at noon. At the end of the flowering period, the inflorescence gradually dries up, resembling a dandelion (Taraxacum officinale).
Salsify can be grown in almost any garden. All sunny and semi-shady beds that are deep enough for root vegetables are suitable locations. The vegetable prefers humus-rich, stone-free, light or sandy soil, but this is not a must. Unlike black salsify, salsify can break up hardened soil and therefore has a soil-improving effect, making locations with heavy soils also suitable. If possible, prepare the bed in the autumn before planting and amend the soil with organic fertiliser such as manure or compost. Alternatively, if the bed is still planted in autumn of the previous year, use a soil improver to create ideal conditions for plant growth. Potatoes and other root crops are excellent preceding crops. When growing root vegetables, it is important to regularly hoe the soil during the growth phase to keep weeds at bay and the soil loose.
The plant also loves to be grown in mixed cropping. Leeks (Allium porrum), kohlrabi (Brassica oleracea var. gongylodes), celery (Apium graveolens) and various types of lettuce are good companion plants.
Sow salsify seeds directly in the bed in spring, between March and May. To do this, sow the seeds 2 cm deep in the prepared bed with a row spacing of about 30 cm. After about 10 to 14 days the seeds will have germinated, thin out any seedlings that are too close to together. Thin to the correct spacing of 5 – 10 cm apart to give each plant enough room.
Tip: When thinning seedlings, do not simply pull them out of the ground, as this can damage the roots of neighbouring plants. Simply use scissors to snip the tops of the salsify seedlings to be sacrificed so that the remaining plants can grow stronger.
During growth, salsify is an undemanding plant. Nevertheless, water regularly, especially during the hot summer months. If it is too dry for the plant, the root may become woody and bolt. This means that the salsify plant will stop growing thicker roots in order to flower and go to seed sooner. In addition to regular watering, weed frequently to allow salsify to grow freely. No additional fertilisation is necessary during growth.
Harvesting salsify roots: procedure, taste and uses
Salsify roots are ready for harvesting in autumn. However, because they continue to grow for a long period of time, it is best to wait until the end of October to begin harvesting. As the plant is winter-hardy, it is possible to continue harvesting until February without any problems. However, lay straw around the plants to prevent them from freezing and make harvesting easier. Use a digging fork or a spade to harvest salsify. Simply dig close to the root, loosen the soil, and lift it up to pull the plant out. A little caution is required so that the roots do not break off. Salsify can be stored in the cellar for a long time in a sand-filled box.
Just like black salsify, common salsify can be used as a root vegetable; it does not even need to be peeled. It tastes delicious when steamed, roasted, deep-fried or made into purée or soup. The plant also tastes delicious raw, for example in a raw vegetable salad. Salsify tastes very similar to black salsify, but it is somewhat sweeter and more aromatic. It is reminiscent of the taste of oysters, which is why the plant is also called the oyster plant. The variety ‘Sandwich Island’, in particular, is very nutritious and makes an excellent winter vegetable. It is a little smaller but very robust with a delicate, nutty-sweet aroma. Salsify leaves can be eaten raw in salads or used in place of spinach in any recipe.