Scorzonera hispanica has many different names, depending on where it’s eaten. It’s known as black salsify, black oyster root, viper herb, and Spanish salsify, among others. No matter what you call it, this vegetable has a lot going for it. Although black salsify might be a stranger to many kitchens, there’s no need to leave it out in the cold!
With benefits such as being high in vitamin B12 (which helps to strengthen your cognitive skills), as well as its amazing taste and easy growing nature, this foreign beauty is bound to win everybody over. Follow this growing guide and learn how to cultivate it yourself.
What Is Scorzonera, Exactly?
Scorzonera is a member of the Asteraceae family. This makes it a cousin to dandelions, echinacea, and similar daisy-like flowers. In terms of cultivation, it’s similar to more common vegetables such as carrots, parsnips, turnips, and radishes. This root is commonly known as “Black Salsify”, wheareas white salsify is just “salsify”. These two plant types are very similar, having only minor differences in taste and appearance.
The plant gets its name from the Italian word “scorzone”, which translates roughly to “black viper”. During the middle ages, people believed that its root was an antidote for snake bites. This idea was so common that the moniker stuck, along with other snake-related names like “viper’s grass” and “serpent’s root” .
Black salsify has a thick, cream-coloured root with a thick black rind. White salsify is a bit on the thinner side and has a rind that’s closer in hue to its cream-coloured flesh. Both varieties taste surprisingly like oysters, though some people claim that white salsify is slightly sweeter. Note that both scorzonera and salsify are grown the same way, with the same requirements.
These roots were popular in ancient Greece and Rome, and traders helped to trade it across Europe. It gained in popularity during the Medieval era, and it can still be found growing in old monastery and convent garden ruins. Salsify retained its charm right into the Victorian era, where it was prized for its flavor.
How to Grow Scorzonera
Before you get digging, you must know that there are two ways in which to start your crop. You start your plants as seeds planted directly in your garden, or by transplanting pre-sprouted seedlings. What you need to consider is the fact that this is not a quickly maturing vegetable: its average maturity rate is 120 days.
Scorzonera is good at tolerating both cold and hot climates. This means that you can plant your seeds early in the spring and harvest them well after the assumed growing season has ended. No matter what method you choose, the final product will be the same and you, as the gardener, will be happy with a bountiful, healthy and delicious harvest.
If you plan to plant seeds directly in your garden, do so once the last frost has passed and the soil is workable again. If you choose to start your plants indoors, then do so about 6 to 8 weeks before your chosen transplant date. Plant seedlings 0.5 inches deep, in rows spaced about 16 inches apart. Weed carefully, as scorzonera looks just like grass until it begins to mature.
Salsify isn’t ideal for container gardening. It can be grown in very deep pots, but it won’t thrive as well as it does in soil. It does, however, seem to do well in large raised beds, especially when companion planted with symbiotic species.
Caring for Salsify Plants
Scorzonera requires very little care once planted, which makes it very popular with gardeners. It’s also an excellent crop to grow during the colder months. You can water it on an “as needed) basis, with more watering if you live in a dry climate. Soil should be sandy and light for an easy harvest, but it will tolerate many different soil varieties. This plant tolerates all sunlight levels, but full sun is preferred.
Since scorzonera is a root vegetable, it’s not commonly affected by disease or pests.
Aphids, snails, and slugs may come to feast on the plant’s large green leaves and pink flowers. If these creatures become an issue, use a safe and registered pesticide, preferably one that is all natural. Or, you can simply pick off and discard the intruders. If you have chickens or ducks, even better: let them wander freely through your garden and they’ll take care of the slugs for you.
Luckily enough, there are many homemade recipes for natural pesticides. These are made with common ingredients that you probably have in your home right now!
Here’s a common DIY, natural, oil-based pesticide. This is what you’ll want to use to deter aphids and other known to damage scorzonera. All you need need is water, vegetable oil (canola or sunflower work too), soap (dish soap or liquid body wash will do the trick), and a spray bottle.
Mix 1 cup of vegetable oil with 1 tablespoon of soap. Next, add 3 tablespoons of this mixture into 1 cup of water, and combine thoroughly. Transfer this into the spray bottle, secure the lid tightly, and use on your plants as needed.
Spray this pesticide lightly on your scorzonera once a week. This won’t overwhelm your plants, and will work effectively to keep the pests away. Watch out, however, as too much could ward off helpful pollinators such as bees and butterflies.
In addition, improper use of any pesticides could result in a defective scorzonera crop. Some oil-based pesticides can block up plant pores. These pores need to be open so that the plant can photosynthesize and grow properly. If you choose to buy a name-brand pesticide, make sure that it’s been labelled as both safe for the environment, and for edible plants.
Companion Planting with Scorzonera
Scorzonera companion plants quite well. Just note that black salsify does best when grown beside its sister, white salsify. This vegetable will benefit growing beside herbs such as thyme, rosemary, and sage, since the herbs’ scent will ward off unwanted pests.
Plant it in amongst your carrots to repel the notorious carrot fly. You can also plant it with other root vegetables, including standard potatoes, sweet potatoes, turnips, parsnips, and rutabagas.
Harvesting and Storage
Leave some scorzonera roots in the soil to take advantage of it as a perennial vegetable. Harvest the majority of your crop after the recommended 120 days to maturity. Note that if you allow your black salsify to grow a little while longer, their flavor will improve exponentially.
You can harvest these in any weather and during any season, but it’s difficult to pull roots from soil that’s frozen solid. Pull a root up by gripping a plant tightly at the base of its foliage. Pull with a gentle twisting motion until the root is freed from the ground.
If you’ve planted this vegetable without sufficient growing room or in poor conditions, its roots will be weak and brittle, making harvesting difficult. Should this be the case, there are two solutions you can use. When it’s time to harvest them, you can either dig up the roots with a shovel, or use a fork to pierce them and lever them out of the ground.
Store these lovely roots with their peels intact, in a cool, dry area. Like other root vegetables, they can be packed in straw or sand for long-term storage. These are perfect to store in cold cellars or basement pantries, provided that these rooms aren’t too humid. The last thing you want is for your vegetables to get moldy!
Cooking with Scorzonera
The plant quickly secretes a sticky sap, so if you’re going to peel the roots before cooking them, do so quickly. Some expert chefs recommend boiling the roots with their skins intact, and peeling them once they’ve cooked. The thick skins come off more easily, and the roots retain more nutrients via this method.
Use scorzonera as you would use hardier root vegetables like parsnips and turnips. Mashed a bit of butter and salt, they make a delicious, nutrient-dense alternative to mashed potatoes. They’re also great roasted, or grated and fried as fritters. A quick online search will yield countless recipes for these roots, ranging from simple soups and stews to intricate pasta dishes.
If you have a bumper crop and want to preserve these for future use, that’s doable too. Pickle the peeled roots like carrots, or chop them into 1/2-inch slices to toss into soups and stews during the winter.
This wonderful root vegetable deserves a bit more time in the spotlight. As more and more people are re-discovering old-world vegetables, ingredients thought long lost are making a comeback. Consider widening your horizons beyond the standard fare on sale at your local grocery store. These vegetables were treasured for centuries for a reason: they’re as delicious as they are easy to grow, and would make a wonderful addition to your garden.