This row of mature salsify in Steve's garden is ready for harvest.
Salsify, or vegetable oyster, is a widely grown root crop in Europe, but seldom encountered in the U.S. except in specialty French and Italian grocery markets. The plant has milky sap, grasslike leaves to 2 ft (60 cm) tall, and a creamy white tap root that looks a lot like a parsnip (Pastinaca sativa) root. (The parsnip, however, is in the carrot or parsley family, not the sunflower family.) Salsify blooms in its second year with a rose-purple flower atop an unbranched stem. Just a few cultivars are available from U.S. sources: 'Mammoth Sandwich Island', 'Improved Mammoth Sandwich Island' and 'Fiore Blu'. The Royal Horticultural Society Dictionary of Gardening lists five cultivars.
Location Tragopogon porrifolius occurs naturally in the Mediterranean region of Europe, where it is a common wildflower in dry grasslands. Salsify is grown as a vegetable crop in most of Europe, including the British Isles, Russia, and especially France and Italy. It is also popular in Taiwan and South Africa. Salsify has escaped cultivation and established itself as a roadside weed in nearly all of the U.S. except the extreme Southeast.
Growing salsify is like growing parsnips or carrots. The soil should be fertile and deeply cultivated. It should not be rocky or clayey. Some growers plunge a crowbar or similar tool a foot (30 cm) or so into the soil, rotating it to form a cone shaped hole which is then filled with sifted compost. Seeds are then planted in the hole and eventually thinned to a single plant. This allows the tap root to grow unimpeded and discourages forking. Light: Salsify should be grown in full sun. Moisture: Salsify grows best in rich, moist soil, but once the plants are 2-3 in (3-7 cm) tall, they can tolerate occasional drying out. Hardiness: USDA Zones 4-9. Salsify is a biennial, blooming, then dieing in its second year. The plant grows vegetatively during its first season; the root overwinters and resprouts in its second season, producing flowers and ultimately, seeds. Propagation: Salsify seeds should be sown about a half inch (1-2 cm) deep, and thinned to 4-6 inches (10-15 cm) apart when the plants are up and established. Here in Zone 8, I have planted salsify in autumn for harvest the following May or June, but I believe it would be preferable to plant in spring for harvest after fall and winter frosts.
The salsify's edible root is similar in appearance to that of the parsnip (Pastinaca sativa).
Salsify has been cultivated as a food since at least the Thirteenth Century. The tap root is eaten as well as young shoots (called chards) and flower stalks of overwintered plants. Roots are harvested when about 8-10 in (20-25 cm) long, after at least 100 days of growth. The root is peeled and can be grated for use raw in salads, boiled and mashed, or sauteed in butter. The roots turn dark as soon as peeled unless dropped into acidulated water. Salsify root is not as sweet as parsnips. When cooked, the flavor is reminiscent of oysters, and like other root crops, is improved after the first light frosts of autumn. Overwintered plants will send up small, tender shoots and flower stalks in spring and these can be eaten like asparagus. They are said to be quite sweet.
Scorzonera or black salsify (Scorzonera hispanica) is another member of the sunflower family that produces an edible tap root. Like salsify, scorzonera originated in the Old World and remains almost unknown in North America.