Salsify

Family: Compositae
Genus: Tragopogon
Species: porrifolius

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.