“O Oysters, come and walk with us!”

walrus and carpenter

Modified detail from John Tenniel’s illustration for the Walrus and the Carpenter

When I first grew Salsify, Tragopogon porrifolius, I was fairly new to grow-your-own and was being adventurous with vegetables. I was reading a lot of wild food and (Victorian) kitchen gardening books and so I grew it for its delicious, long white roots. Salsify is also known as the oyster plant because it tastes mildly of oysters, but I can’t confirm this since I’ve never eaten oysters. Salsify goes well with dairy (think butter, cream and cheese) and with strong herbs and flavorings (think garlic, onions). It is easy to grow and mostly trouble free. However, the crop needs a long growing season (120-150 days), so you have a long wait to try the roots. I also seem to remember that they required a lot of cleaning/peeling and that I ended up being generally disgruntled with the reward-to-effort ratio.

Maybe things would be different now, but I have long since abandoned growing them as food. However, they do still grow in my garden every year and I’ve never bought another packet of seeds. I am very happy to see them, because they have the most beautiful, pale purple flowers. These are edible too, along with the young shoots.

salsify flower

The flower of Tragopogon porrifolius

The flowers go on to produce huge dandelion-like clocks, (Tragopogon means “goat’s beard”) with seeds that quickly float and settle around the garden, but not in such numbers that they are a problem. This one (photo above) blew into the greenhouse last year and is flowering now, ahead of the plants in the garden.

Salsify also grows in the countryside around here, side by side with the closely-related, native Meadow Salsify (yellow flower – flowering very slightly later). It looks very glamorous en masse basking in the sun and rather annoyingly, the flowers in the field always seem to be a more attractive darker shade than mine.

salsify in the fields

Salsify out in the countryside around Cambridge

I’ve tried collecting seed from these dark purple ones, but they are always pale by the time they flower chez moi. Maybe it is something in the soil? The other thing to know about the flowers, is that they are closed by afternoon and all that lovely purple is completely removed from the picture.

A final interesting fact is that a latex derived from the root can be used as a chewing gum. Apparently kids in Armenia paint the milky juice on to glass and peel it off for use once it is dry.

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About Frogend_dweller

Living in the damp middle of nowhere
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6 Responses to “O Oysters, come and walk with us!”

  1. That’s very interesting! The salsify flowers are quite pretty; do the purple and yellow species cross in the wild, I wonder? If so, perhaps that might account for the slight difference in flower color between the meadow and the garden ones? (though I’d think that would make the purple ones lighter, not darker, but genes move in mysterious ways… so who knows…)

    • Well, they do hybridise. In fact it is well documented in the States that this hybridisation has created new species, eg T. mirus. However, I can’t understand the systematic colour difference between the two locations, unless it nutrient related or something I am missing.

  2. I like it! Not familiar with this plant, strikes me as a sort of cross between an aster and a dandelion. Now I want to try tasting the roots.

    • You are right it is from the Asteraceae family. It looks close to chicory to me. It’s certainly worth a try to taste it, but I just remembered that it discolours quickly on prep if you don’t use a bit of lemon water on it.

  3. Chloris says:

    I’ ve seen these growing wild in Greece but I wasn’ t sure what they were. Nice to have them identified. I have never seen them round here. They are so pretty but I don’ t think I could be bothered to prepare them for eating. ‘ Life is too short to stuff a mushroom’ as somebody, I can’ t remember who, said. I think the same goes for messing about with salsify.

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