We have been growing this old and much sought-after landrace for at least 20 years and consider it from a culinary standpoint to be the cream of the very best. Our original seed came from the internationally-known Swiss grass roots plant and breed organization known as Pro Specie Rara. The Swiss received their initial seed donation in 1992 from Frau M. Lüthy of Aesch, a village in Canton Zürich – hence the pragmatic name for this variety. This Zurich connection caught the attention of Dr. Weaver whose Weber ancestors came from that same area of the canton. However, Pro Specie Rara managed to trace the lineage of the salsify further into the French Jura, its most likely place of origin being somewhere near Clairveaux-les-Lacs – more or less on the western end of Lake Geneva. Swiss horticultural historians have been enamored of this handsome landrace because, aside from its distinct flavor, they believe (without much proof) that it closely resembles the Goat’s Beard (wild salsify) of ancient Greek physician Theophrastes (371-286 BC). Unfortunately, no surviving texts of Theophrastes provide us with an image (his plant descriptions are equally vague), and while Lüthy may be described as a landrace, it is certainly nothing like its tough and tasteless wild ancestors. Lüthy stands alone as a Swiss variety with its own merits that represent many centuries of careful selection that have perfected its special culinary qualities.
Not surprising, salsify has been long considered a Swiss national vegetable because it was in Switzerland where plant improvement first began. This long-standing reputation is doubtless based on the fact that the imperial monasteries in early medieval Switzerland were also centers of horticultural experimentation – as expressed in the botanical writings of Notiker, a Swiss monk-physician who practiced medicine in the great medieval monastery at St. Gall. Notiker used salsify in many of his remedies and even to this day salsify is employed as an important healing agent in botanical medicine.
The species name porrifolius is aptly descriptive in that the Latin means “leek leaved.” Indeed, many people have come into the Roughwood kitchen garden and mistaken salsify for leeks. Salsify is also known as Oyster Plant since the root when cooked tastes like raw oysters. However, the Germans call it Haferwurzel (“oat root”) because they believe it tastes more like cooked oatmeal. Whatever the case, the flavor is distinctive and lends complexity to soups and stews. The greens are also edible, especially when young, and are often added to salads. We should also mention that the unopened flower heads are edible and some people even pickle them, thus all parts of the plant are useful in the kitchen.
Salsify is biennial: plant the seeds two inches apart in the spring and then harvest the roots over the winter and into the following spring. It is important to space the plants far enough apart so that they develop thick roots, otherwise the roots of crowded plants will be long and stringy. For seed saving you need to let the plants run to flower in the early summer. The flowers, which are pale purple and quite attractive to pollinators, quickly develop into giant puff balls resembling dandelions. The wind will carry off the seeds if you are not quick to harvest the blooms as they transform into “feathers.” At Roughwood, we snip them off and let them dry in large paper bags, then remove and clean the seeds later. Otherwise, as you will discover if you grow salsify, birds will