Salsify, Vegetable Oyster, Goatsbeard
The salsifies are spring weeds.Three species are found all over North America, introduced from Europe. Salsify, also called vegetable oyster and oyster plant, Tragopogon porrifolius, is a purple-flowered plant with a flower shaped like a dandelion, narrow leaves, and a seed head like a large dandelion (about the size of a tennis ball). Meadow salsify, Tragopogon pratensis, called by the U.S.D.A. Jack-go-to-bed-at-noon, is yellow-flowered but otherwise very like salsify. The third, called yellow salsify or western salsify, also has yellow flowers, scientific name Tragopogon dubius. You can tell meadow salsify from yellow salsify because meadow salsify flower heads look neater, less ragged, each ray (outer) floret with longer, more continuous petals.
Salsify is simply an old French name for the plant. Vegetable oyster and oyster plant tout the taste of salsify’s root. Jack-go-to-bed-at-noon reflects the fact that the flowers close about noon, though they may reopen the next day. That applies to all three species. Abraham Crowley (1618-1667) wrote a long poem about English flowers, saying
“Then the Goat’s-beard which each morn does peep
But shuts its Flow’r at noon, and goes to sleep”
I grew up calling meadow salsify goatsbeard. That is a commonly-used name for it, especially in England. It translates the scientific name, trago is Greek for a male goat, pogon is beard, referring to the fuzzy seeds. Eastern North America has an unrelated plant called goatsbeard, Aruncus dioicus (rose family, Rosaceae) so using the common name salsify is clearer. The species epithet porrifolius means “leek-leaf” a leaf shaped like those of leeks, while pratensis is “of the meadow” and dubius is what it looks like, doubtful, as in not fitting the pattern.
All three are edible and apparently that is why they were brought to North America. Roots, leaves, stalks, and flower buds can be eaten. It is rare to see them in a U.S. market today, though they are still common European vegetables; for the U.S., salsifies are vegetables that have gone out of style. They are sold canned and fresh online (and so, in markets somewhere) and you can buy seeds.
The part of salsify that gives it the name vegetable oyster is the root. I have never tried that; salsify is not common where I live (and my husband won’t touch even real oysters). Meadow salsify and yellow salsify are common where I live, and I have cooked the leaves, but I’m not a great cook, and they were “ok”. Serious foragers praise the salsifies, especially the young flower buds. If gathering them, as with all wild foods, be sure you are clear on identification; young flower buds have the advantages of being more easily identified than leaves. Growing salsify gives you a more reliable source, and bigger, fatter plants.
Salsify plants are short-lived perennials. Most plants flower in two years, though a few will flower the first year and some take three years. They form a spidery rosette the first year and. when they have enough energy, send up a flower stalk (bolt). Like carrots, they die after flowering. They have a substantial tap root, making the one in the wrong place hard to remove, but providing the “vegetable oyster.” Harvest roots for eating at the end of the first year.
The flowers are very pretty but will wilt rather than make good cut flowers. They open early and close about noon, so get out in the morning to appreciate them.
Everyone admits the salsifies are weedy, but I cannot find them on any noxious weed lists, which suggests salsifies are “abundant but not troublesome.” Where I live abandoned lots and roadsides overflow with them. I don’t have to plant them; I can wait for them to appear in my yard. I don’t get very many that way, but I enjoy “backyard foraging.”
Albert, S. Five ways to cook and serve salsify. Harvest to Table. https://harvesttotable.com/salsify_you_be_the_judge/ Accessed 3/26/2020.
Couplan, F. 1998. The Encyclopedia of Edible Plants of North America. Keats Publishing, New Canaan, Connecticut.
“salsify, n.”. OED Online. March 2020. Oxford University Press. https://www-oed-com.libproxy.unl.edu/view/Entry/170137?redirectedFrom=salsify (accessed March 18, 2020). Thayer, S. 2010. Nature’s Garden. Forager’s Harvest, Birchwood, WI.
Tragopogon dubius. USDA Fire Effects Information System. https://www.fs.fed.us/database/feis/plants/forb/tradub/all.html
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