Tired of the same old carrots, potatoes, and turnips? Try growing some rarer root vegetables that will introduce new tastes into your diet and help preserve America’s horticultural legacy. Seldom-grown root vegetables include skirret, scorzonera, salsify, and parsnip.
Skirret (Sium sisarum)
Skirret is a perennial root vegetable with a taste somewhere between carrots and parsnips. It yields several four-to-sixteen-inch misshapen roots with colors varying from white to light brown to gray, depending on the varietal and growing conditions. Widely grown in the Far East, skirret has not been common in the United States since the American Revolution. The most difficult challenge to growing skirret today is finding seed, but at any one time, there are usually one or two online seed companies offering it. The good news is that once you’ve grown it, you won’t need seed again because skirret can be propagated by root division. In northern climates, direct seed skirret shallowly about one month before the last frost date. In southern climates, sow it in the fall so that it can grow through the winter. After germination, thin seeds to about a foot apart, so the plants have room to grow up to four feet tall. In the north, mulch skirret for overwintering. Skirret is best harvested after two years. In the north, skirret flavor will benefit from frost. Also, skirret after the second year is less woody with improved taste, regardless of frost exposure.
Skirret can be braised or boiled, and complements potatoes in a mash. Depending on the growing conditions and varietal, it may have a tough inedible core. Remove this after cooking.
Scorzonera (Scorzonera hispanica) and Salsify (Tragopogon porrifolius)
Scorzonera and salsify are biennials that are easy to grow, provide a refreshingly different taste, have few disease or pest problems, and can be eaten from the root up to the flower. With all these advantages, try growing a few along with your carrots.
Scorzonera is originally from Spain. Also known as black salsify or black oyster plant, it produces carrot-sized roots with a rough black skin over white flesh. As one of its names indicates, scorzonera tastes similar to oysters. Scorzonera is another one of those root vegetables that Americans grew before the advent of large-scale mechanized cultivation.
Scorzonera grows best in cooler climates, although I’ve successfully grown it in California’s hot central valley and it’s also been grown in Florida with moderate success. One to two months before the last frost date, direct seed 1/8-inch deep a few inches apart. Once established, thin plants to six inches. If you’re a vigorous weed hunter, be careful because recently germinated scorzonera looks a lot like grass. This root vegetable can be harvested after six months, but I’ve found these to be small and wasteful of garden space. Since scorzonera retains its flavor over winter, harvest in year two for bigger roots and a better crop yield.
I’ve had trouble harvesting scorzonera. If you try to pull it out of the ground like a carrot, the root often snaps near the base, leaving much of the stubborn root buried deep in the ground. Instead of yanking it out, gently dig around the scorzonera root and then carefully pull it out.
Unlike carrots or skirret, do not eat scorzonera raw because it has a bitter taste. Rinse off the roots but do not remove the skin (which contains much of the oyster flavor) before cooking. Boil the roots for eighteen to twenty minutes, let them cool, and remove the skin. I like to drizzle them with béchamel sauce, but they can also be mashed with butter for a tasty alternative to mashed potatoes.
Another great reason to grow scorzonera is its versatility. All parts of the plant are edible. The young leaves complement other greens in a salad. During the second year, overwintered roots produce shoots that can be prepared as an asparagus substitute. Flowers from the plant have a cocoa aroma that spices up salads.
Salsify is similar to scorzonera but has light-colored roots. Its advantage over scorzonera is that you can harvest the roots after about four months. However, it also has a couple of disadvantages. It can spread and become a weed, so your cultivated varietal could cross with previous varietals that have become weeds in your part of the country.
Parsnips (Pastinaca sativa)
Although not as rare as skirret, scorzonera, or salsify, parsnip is another neglected root vegetable. It has white roots that resemble a fat carrot. Although you can grow parsnip in many parts of the country, it has a very bland flavor unless subjected to a cold winter. Parsnips are grown, cultivated and eaten like carrots, but have some advantages to those living in the north. First, if you’re a seed saver (and we should all be) parsnips are similar to carrots, so you can grow it like a white carrot without worrying about seed purity. Second, parsnips can survive very cold winters in areas where carrots won’t without the tedious process of digging them up, storing them over winter, and replanting them.
Parsnips do have a few disadvantages to carrots, however. First, they are slow to germinate and do so somewhat inconsistently. You need to overseed and thin. Second, parsnip leaves may cause some people to break out in unpleasant skin rashes. Finally, parsnip seed is good for only a year, so you must be diligent in your seed storing efforts. Overall, however, parsnips complement carrots in the garden and are worth planting in a northern garden.
Over the past couple of hundred years, Americans have narrowed the variety of plants in their gardens. This is especially true with root vegetables. Expose yourself to new tastes and valuable food sources by trying one of these tried-and-true alternatives to today’s more common root vegetables.