I much prefer the other name by which I've known this pretty, non-native wildflower of dry slopes, road sides, and waste areas for the past 20 years: Johnny-go-to-bed-at-noon. Except in some places it's Jack-go-to-bed-at-noon. Or goat's-beard. Or oysterplant. Oh well, what's in a name.
This genus of dandelion-like plants in the Asteracea family is native to Eurasia. Here it's a weed. We have a few species in the Pacific Northwest, including the western salsify pictured above (also called yellow salsify) Tragopogon dubius. You can distinguish this species from the meadow salsify (Tragopogon pratensis) by its longer green bracts, which extend well past the yellow rays.
Johnny-go-to-bed-at-noon is an apt name. It opens its flowerhead in the morning and closes before the heat of day. When it goes to seed, it looks like a great, oversized dandelion—a temptation to any kid wandering past, much to the pleasure of this weedy plant, looking to spread its seed far and wide.
The most commonly eaten species of salsify is Tragopogon porrifolius, a purple-flowered variety which can be cultivated in gardens and is said to have been a favorite of Thomas Jefferson. I don't see this one growing wild very often in my region. A closely related root vegetable is called black salsify, Scorzonera hispanica. The domesticated varieties are usually harvested in late fall through early spring.
Once I got the plants home, I found a recipe online that involved braising the peeled roots in water, lemon juice, and herbs before sautéing in olive oil and butter. But no amount of braising could have tenderized these gnarly specimens. Even peeled, they had a tough outer skin wrapped around a pithy interior. Yet that thin interior vein gave a tantalizing hint of the culinary might-have-been. It was soft, buttery, slightly nutty, a bit like artichoke heart. It was quite tasty, as a matter of fact. I sucked it out like marrow from a bone and pondered my next move. Try digging the plant at a different time of year? Look for the more widely used Tragopogon porrifolius?
concentrates his salsify foraging efforts on the leaves rather than the roots. Maybe this was a hint. Next time I'll look for the purple variety. Such is the ongoing education of a forager. Failure rides shotgun with success, and experimentation is the order of the day.