Have you been noticing what looks like HUGE dandelion "fluff balls" growing on the Bluegrass roadsides the past few weeks? Well, these are NOT dandelions - this is a plant called Tragopogon porrifolius, or Salsify. Salsify is also know by the common names Oyster Plant or Vegetable Oyster. These plants are runaways from domestic gardens, especially from Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill in Mercer County, Kentucky, where I was first introduced to this wonderful vegetable. Salsify is a rather uncommon root crop not often found growing in home gardens, but is a very care free vegetable to cultivate.
The Shakers were very fond of this root vegetable and grew it in their gardens. Because the seed heads are fluffy like dandelions, they are able to travel very far in the wind and are now popping up along roadsides and in abandoned fields.
Salsify also has other common names: "goatsbeard", "meadow goatsbeard", "western salsify", "common salsify", or "wild oyster plant." The flowers are purple and tiny and the seed heads resemble dandelions, but Salsify is much larger and the leaves are grass-like and clasp the stem.
Planting and Growing Salsify: The Oyster plant's main claim to fame is for producing an edible root with a taste that is similar to oysters. I have tried the canned version of this plant and I found it remarkable similar to casseroles made from true oysters. Salsify is a biennial and the flowers don't show up in the garden until the plants second season of growth. Salsify can grow to be at least four feet tall.
To grow Salsify, collect seeds from roadsides and scatter the stick-like seeds over a deeply loosened and composted raised bed. Cover the seeds with a thin layer of topsoil or fine compost. Plant Salsify seeds as early as possible in the spring for a fall harvest. Be careful when weeding a Salsify patch and don't dislodge the germinating seedlings because they look more like tiny twigs protruding from the ground.
Harvesting and Preparing Salsify: The brown seedlings will eventually grow into long, slender, clumps of grass like green leaves, which are also edible and can be added to mixed salads. The tan colored roots can reach eight to twelve inches in length and about an inch in diameter.
Mature Salsify roots can be dug up in the fall or they can be left in the ground over the winter and will re-sprout new leaves and produce both flowers and seeds during subsequent seasons. The roots will continue to grow for a number of years from a single planting.
To cook with Salsify: First you have to carefully wash the roots and remove the thin skin by peeling or scraping. The roots will exude a sticky, milky white liquid when they are scraped. Once the outer layer of skin has been removed the roots must be quickly covered with cool water containing lemon juice to prevent discoloration (similar to what you would do with apples or certain other fruits or veggies). There are several different recipes for cooking with Salsify, and I will post some recipes tomorrow for Food Friday. Salsify is very low in calories, with a one cup serving only containing 40 calories, 3.5 grams of protein.8 grams of fiber.