Warning: Latin ahead. Greek, too.
When I was a child—back in the dark ages—and visited
relatives who lived in the country, two of the treats on the
fall table I always looked forward to were parsnips and salsify.
Both were delicious, taken right from the garden and fried
up fresh. Just-picked is still the only way to deal with parsnips;
the ones in the market just don’t make the grade. And
I’ve never seen salsify in the market at all.
Recently I wrote
an article about good vegetables for the home gardener to
grow as late-season crops, and I included
salsify on the list. All parts of the plant are edible. The
greens are sweet, the root is tasty and easy to cook, and as
if that weren’t enough, salsify’s purple flowers
are nice to look at. Not long after, I was doing a little investigation
into invasive plants classified as “noxious” by
several entities in several regions of the world. And what
did I find on some of the lists? Salsify, the plant also known
as goatsbeard—that’s the meaning of the Greek origin
of the word, Tragopogon. The word porrifolius means, having
leaves like a leek. And the strappy leaves of Tragopogon
porrifolius certainly are leek-like.
So why is Tragopogon
porrifolius, the innocuous salsify plant, included on lists
of thuggish invaders? I’m still not
sure. Its cousins T. dubius and T. pratensis—neither
as tasty nor as attractive as T. porrifolius—are widely
maligned. T. pratensis does have a great common name—Jack-go-to-bed-at-noon—but
seemingly not much else to recommend it. In the USDA plant
database, T. dubius is marked as invasive in several states;
T. porrifolius is not—although it does appear on individual
state lists of invasive plants. The National Park Service classifies
it as invasive only in South Dakota.
Perhaps there’s confusion between species, although
one person’s T. porrifolius is definitely not another
person’s T. dubius. The extension services of several
universities treat T. porrifolius as a vegetable suited to
home gardens and offer growing tips. Oregon State and the University
of Florida include it as a commercially viable vegetable crop
and give guidelines for its production. Plants For A Future
awards it a three on its five-point usefulness scale. And in
1992 a paper was presented at the International Symposium on
Specialty and Exotic Vegetable Crops proposing T. porrifolius as a commercially viable leaf vegetable for the winter market.
Nevada includes T. porrifolius in its list of vegetable seeds
subject to the state’s quality criteria, just like seeds
of cabbages and carrots, that “are or may be grown in
gardens or on truck farms and are or may be generally known
and sold under the name of vegetable seeds.”
All members of the
Tragopogon genus are hardscrabble plants, used to finding
a toehold in inhospitable places. They’re
noted for their seed heads—described by Phillips & Rix
as spectacular, looking like “giant dandelion clocks.” The
commercial production guides mark the high rate of germination.
And the fact that my relatives grew salsify in the place where
they lived tells me it’s adaptable and easy to grow.
Those are characteristics shared by introduced plants with
a tendency to crowd out natives. So perhaps it’s true,
and not merely a mix-up in nomenclature: T. porrifolius might
in fact be invasive and unsuited for our gardens. Such a shame.
One small consolation,
if you’ve loved salsify in the
past and must have it again: there is another genus, less common,
made just to order. Scorzonera hispanica is known as Spanish
salsify, and it’s almost as tasty. Alas, it’s also
just as adaptable. Look for it to appear on invasive plant
lists in the next decade or so.