Salsify - Common Vegetables - A Curious History of Vegetables: Aphrodisiacal and Healing Properties, Folk Tales, Garden Tips, and Recipes - Wolf D. Storl

A Curious History of Vegetables: Aphrodisiacal and Healing Properties, Folk Tales, Garden Tips, and Recipes - Wolf D. Storl (2016)

Common Vegetables

Salsify (Scorzonera hispanica)

Family: Asteraceae or Compositaceae: composite, daisy, or sunflower family

Other Names: black oyster plant, goat’s beard, serpent root, Spanish salsify, viper’s herb, viper’s grass

Healing Properties: reduces cough, strengthens immune system, softens tissues, promotes urination (diuretic); ideal for diabetes diet

Symbolic Meaning: sun plant, enemy of snakes, Lemurian plant

Planetary Affiliation: Saturn, moon, and the sun with the influence of Jupiter

Relatively few people know of the root vegetable salsify. If we are familiar with it at all, it’s been in the form of small, bite-sized white root morsels. Once tasted, they surprise us with a fine, mild, almost sweet flavor similar to asparagus. It is even called “winter asparagus” in some places in Europe. Freshly dug from the garden bed, however, one sees that the cylindrical roots are at least a foot long and have a coal black, coarse rind similar to that of comfrey, which protects them from frost and drought and makes them absolutely winter hardy. When the fresh roots are peeled, they are white and milky, and break easily.

Permanent agriculture enthusiasts like salsify for how well it fits into the idea of an “eatable,” self-regenerating eco-system. This vegetable needs very little care; in favorable conditions it will even sow itself, becoming a permanent part of the garden. That said, the root will nonetheless not develop as well without a gardener’s care. For example, after harvesting, if the top part of the root is replanted many small edible roots will grow out of it. The buds can be sautéed and added to a vegetable dish or a salad (Heil 2001, 123). Incidentally, if the seeds do not sprout, they are too old—after just one year they don’t sprout well.

Salsify must be sown early enough in the spring in order to have fully developed roots by harvest time; if they are sown too late the roots will be spindly in the fall. They can be left in the garden all winter, covered with a protective layer of mulch and harvested as needed—as long as there are no root voles or other such varmints in the garden, as salsify is one of their favorite roots. The vegetable has many vitamins (including vitamin E), fructose (inulin), and manna sugar.

Illustration 77. Salsify

Though one of salsify’s many names is “black oyster plant,” note that it is different from the oyster plant (Tragopogon porrifolius). Indeed, the popularity of salsify was such that it eventually pushed Tragopogon porrifolius from both vegetable gardens and dinner tables. (We cover the oyster plant in the Forgotten, Rare, and Less-Known Vegetables section to come.)

Salsify is a relatively new vegetable, as it’s been around only since the middle of the seventeenth century, first cultivated in Italy and then in France. Before that it was gathered in its wild form, its tasty young leaves added to soups; it’s thought that the wild plant crossed over the Alps with the Romans. As a wild plant salsify prefers a Mediterranean-like climate in plant communities with grasses and bushes. It’s certainly to be found near vineyards and in meadows in northern Europe. European settlers brought it to North America, where it now is often considered an invasive weed, one that grows wherever suits its needs. (I have seen it growing wild in Wyoming, for instance.)

In southern Italian and Spanish folk medicine, the root has long been eaten as a treatment for heart ailments, arteriosclerosis and dizziness. As it (like comfrey) contains wound-healing allantoin, it was also used externally to treat snakebites and other poisons as well as pox and other skin problems. The genus name “scorzonera,” which derives from the Italian scorzonera, refers to scorzone, a kind of “black, poisonous viper.” Pietro Andrea Mattioli (1501-1577), an Italian herbal doctor in the service of Emperor Maximilian II, wrote: “This herb has recently become known and appreciated in Hispania, having helped many people who had been bitten by snakes. After this was successful, it was discovered that it also helped for other kinds of poisoning and also even pestilence.” This explains some of the other names of the wild plant: natter weed, viper root, natter milk, and viper’s grass. The pale purple or yellow blossoming cruciferae has even been praised as “snake’s death.” Mattioli continued: “Many write that the juice of this plant is so powerful that when the snake, as they call it, scorzo, is even touched by it, it goes rigid. And if the juice is dripped into the snake’s mouth, it will die soon afterward.”

The root also found its place in rural veterinary medicine. For example, if the hind legs of a pig go lame, then one should “place a piece of the black root in a crack in the wall and say the following, ‘Dragon, dragon, dragon, out of the stall!’” A vegetable in such a service most certainly deserves the name “power root”!

Its traditional use as a healing plant for snake bites, poisoning, and pestilence was no longer relevant when gardeners first began to cultivate the plant as a vegetable, a debut—ultimately as much cultural as culinary—that coincided with the Enlightenment. Salsify is first mentioned as a vegetable in Switzerland in 1690, when a certain Mr. Zwinger soberly commented, “… with butter, salt, and seasoning eaten in the fall and winter months it is pleasant and healthy fare—it is good for the bodily needs and is enlivening.” Indeed, since King Louis the XIV, the “Sun King” of France, often suffered from indigestion, he had large amounts of scorsonère cultivated in his garden in Versailles, convinced as he was that it was an excellent remedy for debauched stomachs that had just enjoyed lavish meals. (It so happens that the root contains mucilage, which soothes the stomach.) It is mainly because this mightiest of sovereigns showed interest in this hardly known vegetable that it was soon en vogue all over Europe.

Equally in vogue at this time was coffee. We mentioned earlier that expensive coffee was often stretched with the addition of roasted chicory roots; roasted salsify roots served just as well. Also fashionable at this time were silk stockings and gowns; when it was discovered that silkworms greedily devour salsify leaves, the plant came into use as silkworm fodder. Salsify was also a favorite vegetable in Victorian England; unfortunately, since the servants were expected to peel the sticky black roots until they were perfectly clean, most of the vitamins and minerals were lost in the process. (Modern nutritionists recommend cooking the roots in the skins and peeling them, or not, once they’re cooked—the skin then comes off easily.) And Russians, who learned about salsify in the nineteenth century, were so enthused that gardeners there developed “Russian giant salsify”—the kind cultivated everywhere today.

Illustration 78. Salsify, a delicate winter vegetable

Like chicory, lettuce, dandelion, field sow thistle and goat’s beard, salsify belongs to the subfamily of composites, Lactuceae or Cichorioideae, that contain “milk” or latex. They usually blossom yellow (though sometimes blue) and have ray florets (what we see as individual petals surrounding the central “disc” of a daisy-like flower). The Tau-Saghyz (Scorzonera tau-saghyz) is a kind of salsify from the steppes of Kazakhstan that has a fair amount of milk; as such, it was cultivated in the former Soviet Union as a substitute for rubber latex.

The Cichorioideae plant group is very much ruled by the rhythm of the sun. Their blossoms open at sunrise and close at sunset, and their faces follow the sun’s path across the sky. Many members of this subfamily were once referred to as “brides of the sun” or as “lazy girls” (since they go to sleep right at sunset). Given both the plants’ tendency to flower yellow and the positive effect they have as a liver tonic, herbal astrologers like Nicholas Culpeper (1616-1654) recognized in them the signature of the sun and/or Jupiter. In mythology, sun gods and thunderbolt-carrying storm gods like Jupiter are known to be the enemies of poisonous snakes, worms, and dragons—as such, it’s no surprise the reputation of salsify is seen as related. The milky juice, or latex, of the plants demonstrates that they also carry the signature of the moon. Saturn can be seen in both the root’s black skin and its ability to withstand drought and cold. On the basis of its Saturnic signature, doctors of yore tried it as a remedy for bubonic plague (“Black Death”) and for melancholy resulting from too much “black bile.”

Occultists of all colors and persuasions apply special meaning to the milky juice of these composites. The Dutch wise woman and herbalist Mellie Uyldert claimed the bitter milky substance contains the power of materialization, incarnation, and solidification. This juice, she believed, is a remnant of the cosmic amniotic fluid in which the embryo of the earth once floated; it is a remnant of the Lemurian-era milky atmosphere in which primeval plant and animal organisms lived and from which they nourished themselves; it is a kind of “mother’s milk” that enables spiritual beings to incarnate into earthly matter. Theosophists and occultists like Mellie Uyldert believe that when the moon split off from the earth the earth began to dry out, the atmosphere became thinner, and the creation became more solidified. Only some of the plants, such as milky composites, the spurge family, and the poppy family kept some of this primeval milk in their bodies. This milk still has some of the healing power of the old Lemurian atmosphere, which is calming, purifying, and purging.

It’s anybody’s guess whether this occultist/theosophic story about the sunken continent of Lemuria is only a subconscious, “clairvoyantly perceived” memory of our own embryonic status or a tale of actual cosmic occurrences. But, regardless, even in our own times salsify purportedly does have healing properties. It strengthens the immune system. Thanks to its inulin1 and mannitol (manna sugar) content, it’s ideal for diabetics. A decoction (without salt) of the root suppresses coughs and is a diuretic—good for gout patients. Applied topically, the decoction has a softening and healing effect on scalp eczema, acne, and other skin blemishes. According to Konrad Kölbl, a modern master of healing lore, salsify furthers brain functions and strengthens the entire bodily organism. It does this thanks to its high calcium content, which is important for bone metabolism. Koelble claims it is especially beneficial in a radioactively contaminated environment, as the calcium helps hinder radioactive isotopes from accumulating in the bones. What appears to be just another unorthodox claim has been scientifically validated: calcium in the diet does indeed help reduce the uptake of ionized radiation.

Garden Tips

CULTIVATION: Sow seed in the open garden in the early spring. Mulch the rows after the plants have established themselves in order to keep the soil moist and cool and to discourage weeds. The roots can be dug for use once they reach an ideal size. Note that, like with many root crops, a light autumn frost will improve their flavor. They can be stored in moist sand in the cellar. (LB)

SOIL: Salsify likes well-drained and loose soil such as a sandy loam. Since the roots grow six to eight inches long, the soil should be prepared to at least that depth.


Salsify with Chervil Lemon Sauce ✵ 4 SERVINGS

1 pound (~400 grams) salsify ✵ 2 tablespoons lemon juice ✵ 2 tablespoons butter ✵ 1 pound (~400 grams) potatoes, peeled or unpeeled, cubed ✵ ½ cup (115 milliliters) vegetable broth ✵ ½ cup (115 milliliters) cream (18% fat) ✵ ground nutmeg ✵ sea salt ✵ black pepper ✵ fresh chervil, finely chopped

Prepare a large bowl of water; add a splash of milk. Thoroughly scrub the salsify but do not peel. Cut into ½-inch-thick slices and immediately place in the bowl of water. (Alternatively, sprinkle with lemon juice; the goal is for them to stay white inside.) In a large pot melt the butter over medium heat. Add the salsify and potatoes and mix thoroughly. Cover and cook over medium low heat for about 10 minutes. Add the vegetable broth and cream. Simmer until salsify and potatoes are tender. Season with salt, pepper, and nutmeg to taste. Transfer to a serving bowl. Just before serving, stir in the chervil.