Plant profiles: Salsify

I’ve been researching unusual food plants and writing it all in a notebook for future reference, so I thought I would share it here. I’m concentrating on the sort of things that aren’t normally for sale in your average supermarket/greengrocer.

So here we go with the first in the series: Salsify

I’m not sure how one should pronounce this. I’ve heard Hugh Fearnley-Wittingstall on River Cottage call it ‘salsi-fee’. I would have been inclined to say ‘salsi-feye’ (‘eye’ as in those things on either side of your nose that you see with). Whichever pronunciation you use, if your listener hasn’t heard it before, you’ll be considered correct and in-the-know.

Its botanical name is Tragopogon porrifolius, a horrible mouthful that makes ‘salsi-fee/fye’ sound almost mellifluous. It’s a member of the huge daisy family, botanically called the Asteraceae.

It’s a biennial, meaning it lasts for two years—grows in the first year then flowers and sets seed in the second.

It’s native to the Mediterranean but introduced into other countries, including Australia. My good friend Fran from The Road to Serendipity blog in Tasmania, tells me it grows wild near her (she sent me seeds—more on that later).

Because it’s a root crop, it likes similar soils to carrots and parsnips—deep and fine-textured with no fresh fertiliser. pH 6-6.8.

The carbohydrate in salsify is inulin—a fiber that occurs naturally in many foods like bananas, wheat, onions and garlic. Found in high concentrations in chicory root, it can be extracted for industrial use. Unlike more familiar carbohydrates, which are broken down in the small intestines and turned into fuel for the body, inulin passes through the small intestines to the colon where it stimulates the growth of ‘good bacteria’ and is fermented by bacteria. In some people it can cause gas, bloating, flatulence, and diarrhoea. If you’re planning to eat lots of this stuff, you might want to research it a bit more.

Some of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s salsify recipes are here.

I sent to Phoenix Seeds in Tassie for salsify seed. I planted it in late August last year and it germinated in 15 days. The seeds are long and spindly and should preferably be direct sown. It eventually develops a large tuft of grass-like leaves. The young leaves can apparently be used as a green, but I didn’t try them.

I kept the water up to the plants in summer (watering should be regular—irregular watering can cause the roots to spilt) and the tuft of leaves got bigger and bigger. Last week I decided it was now or never and dug up 3 clumps:

salsify 001

I wasn’t expecting all those side roots. I don’t know if that’s normal or not. The largest one had a decent-sized main root anyway:

salsify 002

I cut off all the side roots and this is what I was left with:

salsify 004

It was almost 4 cm wide at the widest point. If it had been a parsnip, I’d have been rapt at that size.

I peeled the largest of the side roots and microwaved them. The flavour was a bit like a flavourless parsnip. I forgot to mention that it’s sometimes called ‘oyster plant’, because it’s supposed to taste like oysters. I couldn’t say because I’ve never eaten oysters. Oh, and peeled roots discolour so you need to stand them in water and lemon juice if there’s a delay in cooking.

I peeled the main root and roasted it with other vegetables. It had a bit more flavour, but only, I suspect, due to the browned surfaces.

Overall, it was easy to grow but flavourwise, on its own, not something to write home about. Probably it’s the other things it’s cooked with, or the sauces used with it that make it more appealing. Good for adding bulk to a recipe. It can also be boiled, mashed, stir-fried and steamed.

I’m going to leave the rest of the crop in the ground until spring when I expect the plants to flower. I want to see if the flowers are attractive to bees, plus I want to collect more seed. It might be a useful plant to have in the food forest for attracting bees and for times when other food is scarce.

I mentioned that Fran from Serendipity Farm sent me salsify seed. I sowed it in early December last year but it didn’t germinate. Because it was freshly collected, I suspect that, like many other Asteraceae family members, it had gone into dormancy. I’ve just sown more and it has germinated, as has what was left of the Phoenix seed.

If any readers have grown salsify, please share your experiences in the comments box.

5 Responses to “Plant profiles: Salsify”

  1. Liz Says:

    I always thought salsify had black outer skin. I have either been misinformed or the varieties vary a fair bit. Shame it wasn’t that interesting flavourwise.


    • foodnstuff Says:

      You’re right, Liz. There is one with black skin. It’s called Scorzonera, Black Salsify or Spanish Salsify. It’s a different species, Scorzonera hispanica. It has a tuft of leaves, too, but they’re wider; lance-shaped. I should have written about that too, to save confusion (see note to narf below).


  2. narf77 Says:

    Awesome Bev! 🙂 So glad it germinated (and a good reminder to get mine into some seed raising mix PRONTO 🙂 ). I wonder if the wild stuff will give a better result than the cultivated seed you bought from Phoenix? Might be an interesting experiment and thank you SO much for sharing this more exotic experimentation with us. I, for one, am incredibly interested in your results 🙂 Please keep posting about the “weird” stuff 🙂


    • foodnstuff Says:

      See note to Liz above. I should have written about Scorzonera and then I would have been able to tell you that the seed you sent of that didn’t germinate either. I thought I had sown it all, but checked just now and I have some left, so will sow that right away and let you know how it goes.


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