Sometimes the past whispers into the ear of the present. (Psst: Salsify is a chic new vegetable in with the foodie crowd . . . and also an old-fashioned heritage root crop.) While working at a Victorian farmhouse garden, researching historically appropriate seeds to order, I found that salsify featured in Steves’ 1890 seed catalogue, a source from which local farmers would have been ordering in the day. At the same time, a cool, urban hipster I knew, who was training as a chef, regaled me with tales of how much salsify he had peeled and cooked one night in an upscale Vancouver restaurant kitchen. As for me, I loved the way the name tickled my tongue when I said it aloud and was curious about this food that I had never seen in any shop. I set to convincing my hesitant volunteer garden workforce that this was an essential for the garden that year. I also grew it at home.
Salsify is primarily a root crop, though the young shoots (called ‘chards’), flower buds, and flowering shoots can also be eaten. The roots are said to taste like oysters – so much so that “oyster plant” is one of its common names. It is most often used in soups. Mammoth Sandwich Island salsify seems to be the type most widely grown, so that is what I ordered.
Salsify is a biennial that likes to grow in stone free, loose soil. Seeds should be planted by early April to mid-May, as they can take as long as 21 days to germinate. Carefully mark the rows because the shoots come up looking a lot like grass. “Station sowing” is recommended for salsify. This is the practice of putting more than one seed in the spot (or “station”) where you want it to grow. If all three seeds come up, two will eventually have to be nipped back to leave the strongest contender in place. Stations should be six inches apart and in rows at a distance of 12 inches. Cover the seeds with ½ inch of soil. The seeds must be kept moist, never allowed to dry out. Under our normal spring conditions, this is not generally too difficult. The crop is best off mulched in summer – again to help keep it moist.
By October, some salsify should be ready to come out of the ground, though it can be left much longer than that and may even be improved by a bit of frost (much like parsnips). Some should be left to overwinter, however, so that the next season will bring the pretty purple flowers and then, finally, the new seeds.
The Salsify Assessment
My salsify grew in luxuriant green spikes that filled in the bed in a satisfying manner, one that I thought bolstered my credibility in the neighbourhood as a competent farmer. The roots I pulled, however, were forked, scrawny, and covered in tough whiskers. These attributes are likely a sign my soil had too much nitrogen in it.
Undaunted, I peeled and chopped my thin, hobbity little dears and plunked them into stews as the weather cooled. I nibbled them raw, I munched them cooked, I considered them in minute detail. My conclusion was this: they didn’t taste at all like oysters. In fact, they tasted very little at all, though they bulked up my soup and no doubt added nutrition. They were easy to grow and convenient to pull from the garden as needed, even long after much of the rest of my produce was past - but, in terms of taste, they filled the same sort of role as tofu: only as good as the dish in which it resides.
Come spring, the salsify flowered. I forgot to taste the buds and shoots but couldn’t help but smile at the lovely blossoms that opened and closed with the passing of the sun. They blinked their eyes coyly, flirting with me from beside my garden gate. The seed heads that followed were careful geometric constructions of perfect symmetry in muted blonde. Such a pretty plant; such an insipid taste.
Either I’m Easy or They Are
So, why am I growing salsify again this year? I am a lazy gardener. No: I am a busy gardener. Whatever my excuse, the seedheads were left in place for a long time. By the time I got around to pulling them out, the new season’s crop had set itself in place. I would be the last to oppose nature, to counter what seems to be the will of the land, to rip out work that has already been done. Besides, they don’t taste bad and I’m sure they are good for us. I’ll pull them and stew them again this winter and as I set dinner on the table, I’ll say, “Can you taste the oyster plant I put in from the garden?”