Pull Up Your Plants: Salsify
Aliases — Wild Salsify (pronounced Sall-sah-FEE), Goat’s beard, Jack-go-to-bed-at-noon, go-to-bed-at-noon, nap-at-noon, noon tide, salsifex, sleep-at-noon, clock-flower, Joseph’s flower, Buck’s beard, gait-berde, Jack-by-the-hedge (T. pratensis) Jerusalem star, oyster plant, oyster root, purple-goat’s beard, stars of Jerusalem, vegetable oyster, Flora’s clock (T. porrifolius).
French: Salsifis des prés, barbe de bouc
Italian: Barba de Becko
Binomial Etymology — Tragopogon pratensis. Trago- refers to “a goat;” “-pogon” refers to “a beard; pratens means “found in a meadow.”
T. dubius — Dubius refers to “doubt.”
T. porrifolius — Porri- refers to “a leek;” –foli refers to “a leaf or leaves” (Borror, 1960).
Binomial Pronunciation — Trag-oh-POE-gone
USDA Classification — Invasive
Despised by gardeners, overlooked by hikers, and weirdly venerated by the British aristocracy as a root vegetable for those in-the-know, Salsify is a plant with a complicated relationship with humankind. Resembling a goliath dandelion with grass-like leaves and a full head of white achenes, you have seen this plant many times.
Like the carrot, Tragopogon spp. are biennial plants (lasting two years) that grow to a height of one to two feet. In the first year, there will be no flowers. The leaves are grass-like, up to a foot long, and taper from the base of the plant to a point. All parts of this plant exude a milky juice when broken. When very young, the leaves may briefly exhibit pubescence (small hairs) but the plant will be glabrous (hair-free) for most of its life cycle. The plant presents with a taproot.
In the second year, Tragopogon spp. will present star-shaped flowers at the ends of hollow peduncles (a stalk bearing a flower or fruit). The ray flowers will present with sharp bracts (a modified green leaf-like structure that present beneath the flower petals) that number from eight to thirteen. The bracts are longer than the petals themselves and contribute to the flower’s star-like presentation. The white achenes are up to 1 inch long and are attached to a sharp and tapered seed.
T. dubius presents with bright yellow flowers with a swollen portion occurring directly below the flower; T. pratensis also has yellow flowers but without this swelling; T. porrifolius will have purple flowers. These species may hybridize with each other making identifications to species hard or even dubious.
The first-year roots are cooked, fried, and made into savory stews, however, caution must be advised for picking first-year plants because they may resemble poisonous plants at this stage. The same caution should be recommended for the harvest of young shoots, which are said to be called “chards” and are blanched and prepared much like asparagus (Masabni & Lillard, n.d.). The cooked and fried rootstocks are savory with an umami character. It is said that salsify roots taste like oysters — thus the distinctive common name of “oyster root” — however this quality cannot be testified to without pretension by myself. The crunchy texture makes me unable to make the connection.
On second year plants, the flower buds are tasty and slightly sweet (like an artichoke) when steamed (Morgan, 2013). The seeds can be harvested and planted in the garden to confidently harvest the salsify roots the following year.
In the past, salsify had been mentioned as being able to “liquefy bile that has become too thick” (Leyel, 1938). Although, no citation was given for this assertion, and the meaning of this statement is ambiguous. There have been passing mentions of salsify being a diuretic in the lexicon of 19th century medicine (Dunglison, 1856). More often, this plant is stated to have little-to-no medicinal value by Anglo-herbalist sources.
The Navajo and Ramah Native Americans were reported to have utilized salsify as an emetic (causer of vomiting), a throat soother, and as a topical treatment for horses or people whom had been bitten by a mad coyote (Mooreman, 2009).
The common name of Salsify was derived from the words sol (referring to the sun), and sequi- which related to the term ‘to follow;” it is believed that — like the sunflower and Jerusalem artichoke — this was born of the belief that the flowers would follow the sun through its path across the sky (Prior, 1879). The many common names referring to time and, more particularly, noon, were derived from the flowers’ habits of opening in the morning and closing as the day approaches noontime (Ford, 1906). The name, Joseph’s Beard, is thought to recall The Virgin Mary’s husband Joseph being pictorially represented with a full beard (Northcote, 1903).
The most common mention of Tragopodon spp. in ancient texts referred to its use as a gourmet root crop by affluent members of French and British societies.
The Goat’s Beard: A Fable
“Then from the fragrant herbs that grow
On craggy cliff, or mountain’s brow,
They cull the sweets; and stuff the pile
With Tragopogon’s downy spoil…”
William Whitehead (1777)
The Goat’s Beard
“And goodly now the noon-tide hour,
When from his high meridian tower,
The sun looks down in majesty,
What time about the grassy lea
The Goat’s Beard, prompt his rise to hail
With broad expanded disk, in veil
Close mantling wraps his yellow head,
And goes, as peasants say, to bed.”
Bp. Richard Mant (1776–1848)
Borror, D. J. (1960). Dictionary of Word Roots and Combining Forms (1st ed.). Mountain View, CA: Mayfield Publishing Company.
Dunglison, R. (1856). Medical lexicon: a dictionary of medical science …. 13th ed., rev. Philadelphia: Blanchard and Lea.
Foord, J. (1906). Decorative plant & flower studies for the use of artists, designers, students & others. London: B. T. Batsford.
Leyel, H. (Wanton) “Mrs. C. F. Leyel.”. (1938). Herbal delights: tisanes, syrups, confections, electuaries, robs, juleps, vinegars, and conserves. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co..
Northcote, R. (1903). The book of herbs. London: J. Lane.
Prior, R. C. Alexander (1879). On the popular names of British plants: being an explanation of the origin and meaning of the names of our indigenous and most commonly cultivated species. 3d ed. London: F. Norgate; [etc., etc.].
Whitehead, William, (1777). The Goat’s Beard: A Fable. 2d ed. London: J. Dodsley,
Masabni, J., Dr, & Lillard, P. (n.d.). Salsify | Vegetable Resources. Retrieved March 24, 2017, from http://horttest.tamu.edu/vegetable/guides/specialty-vegetables/salsify/
Moerman, D. E., & Moerman, D. E. (2009). Native American medicinal plants: An ethnobotanical dictionary. Portland, Or.: Timber Press.
Morgan, L. B. (2013). Foraging the Rocky Mountains: finding, identifying, and preparing edible wild foods in the Rockies. Guilford, CT: FalconGuides, an imprint of Globe Pequot Press.