Alys Fowler: salsify

Salsify: By autumn, the creamy white roots are ready to eat. Photograph: Alamy

Any vegetable that purports to taste of the sea is strange. Boiled salsify tastes a little of oysters that have rolled around the shore with some parsnips and perhaps doused themselves in perfume. It’s a strange thing, but not unlovable. The best salsify recipes boil and then bake, batter, fry or crisp it, and offer up something to dip into: a spicy sauce or garlicky mayonnaise, say.

Salsify (Tragopogon porrifolius), is in the daisy family. It grows to around 120cm tall with grass-like leaves and is crowned in dusky purple flowers. I grow it mainly for these, and for the young shoots in spring, which if picked when tender taste of asparagus. The oyster-impersonating root is tricky in my soil. You need good, sandy loam to get a nice straight run. It’s notoriously difficult to get out in one piece, and every time the root cracks, it starts to stain and gets covered in soil. In my delightful mixture of river stones and clay pans, I get roots with crossed legs and yoga poses, which are no fun to peel.

Still, the right soil is easy in a pot. Sow in spring, from April onwards, in situ. Water the seed drill before sowing and again if necessary, because these seeds don’t like to dry out. Thin seedlings to about 10-15cm apart; use the thinnings in a salad or as a garnish.

The plant will grow considerably over the summer and produce a succession of flowers, each closing by afternoon. By autumn, the creamy white roots are ready to eat. Peel off the skin before cooking (drop into water acidulated with lemon juice to stop them discolouring). The flowers are edible and look pretty in salads. If left in place, the plant happily sows itself around.

An easier alternative is scorzonera, Scorzonera hispanica. This has broader leaves and a slightly more fleshy root, with distinctly perfumed, savoury flavours and a thick, black skin that must be peeled before eating. It’s reliably perennial; the trick is to let it bulk up before harvesting (you may have to wait for up to two years for this to happen). And when you dig up the roots, you kill the plant. I tend not to thin seedlings, let them establish, then dig up the fattest and leave the rest to bulk out. Ensure they’re in a good planting hole: add sand and compost, so you get free-draining conditions. That way, you should have straight roots to harvest in autumn. 

Scorzonera will flower in year two: this has little effect on the tenderness of the roots, nor does it divert energy, so you and the pollinators get to enjoy the sunny, yellow flowers as well.