Monday, July 30, 2012

Wild Salsify

Foraging is not as foolproof as the blogosphere would sometimes have us believe, even when you have a solid handle on plant ID, habitat, and season. It's not like browsing one's way through wood and dale.

Take, for instance, this wild salsify I picked in Montana back in June. I figured I had the makings of an excellent side dish. I'd been meaning to try wild salsify for years, and here was a bunch of it growing next to the Bitterroot River. To my credit, I recognized the species, knew it was edible, and even had some recipe ideas in mind from past research. This seemed like a slam dunk. I dug up several roots and took them home.

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 dubiusYou 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?

Arthur Lee Jacobson, who is always an excellent source of Pacific Northwest botanical information, says he 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.


Anonymous said...

I have always admired this plant as being lovely but never knew it was edible. Where I live it is possible to find both the yellow and purple varieties.

Anonymous said...

You need to harvest the root before it flowers. Still not the greatest edible though.

Riana said...

I forage for them in February way before the flowers come out, that is the only time that they are good to eat. You have to know the sword like leaves and stake out a patch the summer before when you see the flowers. The purple ones that I eat are very good, and do taste like oysters.

Anonymous said...

My family has always called the "Jack in bed by noon". Interesting...

Anonymous said...

I found a lot of fiber in mine, too. I just nibbled them like artichoke leaves, to seperate the soft pulp from the stringy.
The young sprouts and flower buds are good, even raw. I haven't even bothered to try them cooked yet. Lots of info online.

Anonymous said...

I found a lot of fiber in mine, too. I just nibbled them like artichoke leaves, to seperate the soft pulp from the stringy.
The young sprouts and flower buds are good, even raw. I haven't even bothered to try them cooked yet. Lots of info online.
Some people sprout the seeds.

Jeanne said...

The unopened flower buds are the prime edible on wild salsify. Harvest them with an inch of the stem attached, and stir fry or steam them. Flavor hints of artichoke and green beans. Lovely in soup.

The Hunk Hogan said...

I live near an abundance of Tragopogon dubious (a yellow variety of Salsify). The plant is a monocarpic perennial, so when you see it in its flowering form, the roots are utilizing all available resources for flower production (which has been said to make the root bitter and fiberous). Salsify can exist in its pre-flowering form for a few years. In this stage, Salsify looks grass-like. I usually eat the young flower buds after cooking them. Luckily, Salsify is easy to grow from seed. I have a good amount of dubious growing in a raised bed right now from seeds I collected in April/May. I'm going to pull up the roots this fall and see how good they are. I agree with Jeanne (above), the flowers taste a bit like fresh artichoke.