For lovers of showy blooms, Salsify provides a unique star-shaped flash of colour in any bouquet and its sensational seed head is very unfamiliar to many in Britain but historically it was very popular here.
Salsify is a root vegetable whose seed head is larger than a dandelion by a long way and children (or gardeners) can blow these seed heads like dandelions and make wishes galore while they are spreading this hardy winter root vegetable. If you are not familiar with this vegetable, read on for tips to help it thrive in your garden.
Salsify (Scorzonera hispanica), is a biennial plant that provides tasty, vitamin-filled roots for cooking from late autumn right through to the following spring. In the wild, in its first year, the stem has elongated, bright green leaves and it will happily continue to grow until it flowers the following year.
The flowers are delicate and magical in that they only open in the morning and then close tightly shut, later on, giving the flower bud a distinctive shape. This is a plant to be appreciated by the early risers and children think this is magical and so do I!
This flower is a member of the daisy and sunflower family (Asteraceae) and where I live in Kent, it arrives anytime from late May through to July. Further north the flowers will usually appear by June and may continue until August depending on how sheltered or sunny the bed is.
Salsify is a close relative of Scorzonera, a root plant with black skin. Salsify is often called the Oyster Plant or Vegetable Oyster and in the States, it is named Purple Goat’s Beard. I think that Salsify has a cleaner, delicate taste than Scorzonera, but be warned that its root is skinny so do not expect thick, carrot-like roots or you will be disappointed!
Flower arrangers will fall in love with both the blooms and the seed heads and you can cut the flowers for vases but do leave a few buds to go to seed. If you allow it to become established, it will self-seed all over your garden and once you recognise the foliage, you will know to leave it wherever it lands and then you can harvest it when you need it.
Just grow Salsify as an annual for the root the first year or leave a few plants to flower the next year and those seeds will keep the cycle going.
Where does Salsify grow?
The root is native to the Mediterranean but settlers took it to the US and nowadays it grows freely in California, is somewhat rare in the UK because it has gone out of fashion and it flowers very widely in Europe both in wild meadows and in cultivation from France and Spain to Turkey.
In cottage gardens historically it was also used for medicinal purposes – see more below. For me, this flower is useful for the many bee visitors it attracts, for its bright, cheerful flowers and I would like to see it return to the UK in ornamental gardens and vegetable plots.
How do you grow Salsify?
If you know a garden where it grows, maybe source some fresh seeds from them? If not, buy your seeds from a good supplier. There are 3 varieties sold here in the UK; Giant, Russian Giant and Mammoth Sandwich Island.
This last is sometimes just called Mammoth, which in my opinion is slightly exaggerated when you see the width of these roots! It may refer to the length of the roots which can grow as long as a metre in the correct soil…
To grow from seed
Dig some manure into a deep part of your garden in the autumn before you plant or use a patch that recently had beans with a good helping of manure. Remove large stones, as you do for all root crops. Do not add manure directly to the seeds; it needs to have been applied to the soil the previous season for them to be happy.
Plant the seeds
In late March if you live in London or further south but wait until the soil is a bit warmer further north (or in Scotland or Northern Ireland). Salsify likes deep, warm soil and you need to water the seeds well until they germinate. The plant is hardy but it will not germinate in cold, frosty weather so be patient when planting.
Dig the trench
Half an inch (2-3 cm) deep and add some compost. Then sow 2-3 seeds in groups every six inches (50 cm) or so. Each seedling will spread horizontally to about a foot (30 cm) or slightly more and at least 3-4 feet (90-120 cm) high, depending on the fertility of the soil so allow them plenty of space to grow well. If you are planting rows of root vegetables, then allow at least 1 foot (30 cm) between rows.
Water them really well until they germinate
Seeds take about 2 weeks to germinate but germination is somewhat erratic and sometimes it can take as long as a month. Experts plant 2-3 seeds per station and then allow one to develop fully and then remove weaker seedlings.
There’s no point replanting thinned seedlings either because the seedlings hate to be moved. For a cut flower bed, just blow the seeds well over the prepared ground, cover them up and wait and see Mother Nature do her magic.
For flower beds, regular watering is not usually necessary once they are established if you only want blooms for vases, but if there is a heatwave or a really dry patch or if they seem to be drooping, then give them a full watering can every week.
To help to swell the roots as a vegetable, water them at least once a week in spring and continue to water the crop in dry periods but in general, Salsify is an excellent drought plant, providing colour and interest, at least in Kent where I live.
I often forget to water it and it just keeps growing so do not be too worried about this one. Water it whenever you remember and it is very forgiving if you go on a holiday too.
Be extremely careful not to disturb their roots when weeding or you may not see adult plants. Use a surface hoe but do not dig anywhere close to the roots. To keep weeds at bay, you can spread some grass cuttings or a mulch around the base of each stem to keep the stems tidy.
The experts advise other root plants like carrots, swedes, turnips or even potatoes. The flowers certainly add colour to these areas but I have planted Salsify with strawberries for years because they seem to like each other.
I also grow Borage close by and the bees arrive, the strawberries ripen and later on my Salsify provides winter roots. So there is no scientific method here but it seems to work with my soil and my plants. I also just allow nature to self-seed the plants wherever it sees fit. In this way, I have a constant supply all over my allotment.
The whole plant is hardy and survives snow, frost and winter weather so you can start digging the roots from October onwards and continue until the following spring. Usually, the roots begin to bulge out of the surrounding soil and if you carefully check the root, you can see how wide it is.
Dig them carefully, particularly if they are close to other plants because Salsify does not forgive root disturbance. If the weather is really frosty, the ground becomes impossible to dig so harvest some before a cold spell and you can keep them in the fridge for a couple of weeks.
Pruning the tops in Winter
Sometimes experts on my allotment advise cutting the green aerial parts of Salsify in the autumn to make spring greens. In my experience, this heavy pruning will certainly increase the width of the root so try some pruned and some unpruned and see which taste you prefer.
Mulching the plant surrounds in winter gives them some protection if you live in a cold area.
How do I cook Salsify?
You can eat the leaves and the roots. The young spring greens are very useful in the kitchen when much else has died off in the heart of winter.
Some people remove the skin before cooking while others claim the flavour is retained more by peeling after cooking. Try both and decide!
Salsify roots need to be washed well, and then they can be baked, boiled gently or chopped into stir-fries. Try it dipped in batter, then fried or make “alternative” crisps by slicing it into mouth-sized pieces and then deep-frying them until crisp.
Are there any medicinal uses for Salsify?
This root is packed with minerals and vitamins due to the ability of the root to reach deep into the ground searching through deep soil. It contains calcium, copper, magnesium, manganese, iron, potassium and phosphorus as well as vitamins A, B6 and C, inulin, thiamine and riboflavin all of which will give your overall health a boost if eaten right through the chilly winter.
Salsify lowers blood pressure. This is because the high potassium content combined with the low salt (sodium) gently aids the movement of blood through the body.
Potassium is known to help build strong bones and its high content makes this useful in menopause when bone density becomes an issue.
Its historic use by the Greeks and Romans was to improve the health of the hair and stimulate growth. Research has shown that Salsify does encourage the re-growth of hair. This may be due to the iron and copper content which help to keep up the production of red blood cells. These are responsible for providing oxygen and hair follicles seem to benefit from it. There are records of Salsify being used for gallbladder and liver complaints too.
Salsify was used as a remedy for snakebites and was named Viper’s Grass because of this.
Salsify aids good digestion. It is full of fibre (just one serving contains a hefty portion of your daily allowance) which aids digestion and inulin contained in the root is known to aid the growth of beneficial gut bacteria (bifidobacteria) in the digestive system.
A final word about Salsify
I bought my first seeds from an organic supplier and I never even plant them in particular plant beds or crop rotations systems now. I simply allow them space wherever they land and they provide me with gorgeous flowers that pollinators adore, fantastic seedheads for flower decorations and root vegetables whenever I want them in winter. They are pest-free in my experience and all they need is water for germination and stone-free rich soil. Let’s bring back Salsify in the UK!