Days to germination: 21 days
Days to harvest: 120 to 150 days
Light requirements: Light shade in summer
Water requirements: Frequent and consistent watering
Soil: Any soil, as long as it’s loose and stone-free
Container: Not suitable for pots
Looking for something a little different for your garden? Salsify is a highly under-appreciated root vegetable that grows like a carrot.
Salsify is a biennial plant, meaning it doesn’t produce seed until its second year. But since you are going to be harvesting the roots after just the first year, it really grows much more like an annual.
The wild form of salsify is sometimes called goatsbeard and it does not produce an edible root. It blooms with a yellow flower, but edible salsify blooms purple.
The term “Spanish salsify” is sometimes used for scorzonera, which grows similar to true salsify but with a black-skinned root. They are related, but not actually the same plant. Don’t get confused between the two when shopping for seeds.
It takes a little bit like oyster, which has earned it the name oyster plant or vegetable oyster in some regions. The root is high in carbohydrates, starches and lot of fiber. Salsify is a good source of several B vitamins and potassium, too. It’s not eaten raw, but rather cooked in various ways (steamed, boiled, etc).
Starting from Seed
Salsify does not transplant well so it is usually just sown directly into the garden.
As with any root crops, you don’t want any obstacles in your soil. Dig your chosen spot well, and remove any rocks
Seeds should be about half an inch deep, and either sown ever 4 inches or just sprinkled out in a row. As they start to grow, you can thin out the weaker seedlings and just leave the stronger plants with at least 4 inches between them.
Plant your seeds about 2 weeks before you expect your last frost of the season. They can take several weeks just to sprout, so be patient and keep the soil moist until they do.
Salsify is not only slow to germinate, it’s slow to grow as well. Most weeds can easily overwhelm your plants, so you need to pay close attention to keeping them under control.
At first they need lots of sun, but salsify doesn’t thrive well in hot weather. If you can have some light shading for your plants around the middle of summer, they will do better. Growing salsify near any annuals that will grow faster can help produce some shade right when you need it.
Water salsify often and regularly. If you water inconsistently, the roots can split because the started to grow too fast. Keep it even, and never let the soil dry out completely.
This is a light-feeding plant, so you really shouldn’t need to add any fertilizer through the year unless you are growing in very poor quality soil. A bit of compost at planting time should suffice for the year.
Because of their long roots, salsify doesn’t usually do well in containers. Unlike their carrot cousins, there hasn’t been as much development with salsify to create a shorter rooted variety.
Pests and Disease
The carrot rust fly isn’t only partial to carrots, and can lay its eggs on salsify as well. The small black flies lay their eggs near the base of the plant, and the newly hatched larvae (or maggots) will start to eat the plant’s root. Once the maggots get into your salsify roots, there is little you can do. Spraying with insecticides can keep the adult flies away, and you can also get outdoor sticky traps that will also help control the flies.
Wireworms can also be a problem with salsify, and with many other root vegetables. They look like reddish brown worms, and they are the larvae of the click beetle. Click beetles usually lay their eggs in the grass, so if you are growling salsify near the lawn or in a patch that was recently covered in grass, you are more likely to have problems with wireworms. A trick to help control wireworms is to leave chunks of raw potato nearby. The worms are more likely to choose the potato over your salsify, and you can then just dispose of them.
Harvest and Storage
Roots are generally ready to dig once they reach about 12 inches in length. So after around 4 months, dig up a couple and see if they are ready to go. If your soil is loose, you may be able to pull them up by their leafy tops. With more compact soil, this may end up breaking your salsify. In that case, use a shovel or garden fork to gently dig them up.
They can withstand some freezing in the soil, so you can leave them in the ground after the frost arrives. A later harvest means more of that unique oyster flavor for your roots. If your winters are mild enough that the ground doesn’t freeze solid, you may even be able to continue digging up “fresh” salsify all winter long instead of storing them inside.
If you want to get seeds from your plants for future planting, let a few plants remain in the ground and not harvested. They will naturally come back in the spring, and continue to grow all through the next year until they bloom and produce seeds. When they do flower, the blossoms are very attractive. Salsify flowers are quite large and usually some shade of purple.
The seeds have a downy sail, just like dandelion seeds. So if you are collecting seeds, make sure to do so before the winds take them away.
Salsify roots will need to be peeled before you cook them, but its best to store the roots unpeeled. Keep roots in a plastic bag in the refrigerator for up to a week. You can also keep salsify for several months if you have a place with high-humidity to store them. If you don’t have a root cellar, try a bucket filled with damp sand or sawdust. Keep it somewhere cool, but above freezing.