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This too-little-known root is truly one of the "great" vegetables. Its flavor is unique, at least in the vegetable world. Scorzonera is sometimes called "black salsify"; that is a poor name, for although they are similar in general appearance (save that salsify is white like parsnips and scorzonera is, yes, black-skinned, though as white as salsify or parsnips under that skin) and use and taste--a taste that is said to be much like that of oysters, which we couldn't, as vegetarians, speak to--they are not closely related (though in the same large family). As one simple but important difference, salsify is a biennial, whereas scorzonera is a perennial: if you end up leaving the roots in the ground one fall instead of harvesting, they just get bigger.
We have grown both salsify and scozonera, and they are both simply yummy! No, that's too trivial a description--they are delightfully delicious, truly great vegetables; our clear opinion, though, agrees with published consensus: while both are fine, scorzonera is slightly but consistently better-tasting (it is also supposed to be notably more productive--why more seedsmen offer salsify than scorzonera is a mystery).
As noted above, scorzonera is a perennial. While it can be spring-planted and then fall-harvested, it can also overwinter and be left to grow further; it differs from many analogous vegetables in that such continued growth does not diminish its culinary quality at all--no woodiness or bitterness sets in. (Incidentally, a couple of sources say "thought to repel Carrot Root Fly", which would be a nice bonus.)
It is very hard to find cultivar recommendations--or even, in most U.S. seedmen's catalogues, named cultivars--despite their being a plethora of them (we stopped counting at 19) in the world market (there's a list of some better-known types in one of the links listed below). In fact, it is hard to find this vegetable at all--named cultivar or not--in U.S. seedsmen's catalogues. In North America--so far as we could find--only four named cultivars are marketed (and one has to diligently seek those out), they being--alphabetically--Belstar, Hoffmanns Schwarze (an Einjaehrige seklection), Maxima, and Noir di Russie (aka Russian Black, Noir di Rusie, Gigante negra de Rusia, Gigante anual, Annual Giant Bomba, Russisk Kaempe, and more). It is hard to find online cultivar evaluations, and what few there are do not give us much help (see the links provided farther below). It seems we are reduced to trial and error--or there just may not be that much difference. The chief difference noted in technical papers is resistance to bolting; while bolting "does not hollow the root or impair its quality, it does affect yield, making systematic cuts of the flower stems necessary", something that is not a problem for the home gardener as it would be for commercial growers.
We have previously grown the type Belstar, more on convenience of ordering than anything else, and got a good crop (in fact, we have a barrelful of it still awaiting a sunny day to be dumped--see the growing instructions below). This season we'll try the Noir de Russie, just for comparison.
One more thing about these fine vegetables: they can be a pain in the butt to harvest and clean, especially if you don't have ideal soil for them, which ideal is sandy, very fine and light, and pebble-free. First off (as with all "root" crops), if the soil is not loose and sandy, they won't grow well and will be very thin around; moreover, even at best scorzonera are relatively thin and remarkably fragile, much given to snapping, and so notoriously break very easily when you go to pull them. We have spent far too many hours meticulously digging delicately around these roots (which can go quite deep, too) to ever want to go through that again, so we at last, however late, realized what we should have been doing all along: set out a large pot (or, better, tub) or other container of a size adequate to your wanted crop, fill it with very light, somewhat sandy soil, grow the scorzonera, then, for harvest, spread a tarp or some such and just gently tip the tub or whatever out onto the tarp--then sift through the sandy soil for the roots. Obvious, at least in hindsight, and effective.
(We don't normally deal here with food preparation, but a few words may be in order. Opinions quite divide on whether scorzonera needs to be peeled, and--if so--how and when to peel it. Almost all sources agree, though, that it gets mushy quickly when cooked, and so advise gentle poaching or steaming; we'd add roasting, always a good method with root vegetables, and sautéeing. About that skin: some say scrub the raw roots; others say cook it, then peel it. All agree that if peeled (or scrubbed) while raw, it begins to discolor quickly, and so should be immersed in water with some lemon juice in it. Our own experience is that leaving the skin on is just fine; then roast it or (yum!) sauté it up in butter, with or without a little breading or corn meal--unbeatable.)
Beware: scorzonera seeds are notoriously short-lived. If you aren't saving you own seed annually, don't try to be cheap and use last season's leftovers--get fresh seed every year.
See our note above on using a dedicated container--which should be of some considerable depth, a foot or, preferably, rather more--to grow scorzonera.
The soil temperature for optimum germination is pretty high, though they are viable down to rather cool temperatures. In our climate, most sources agree that you can sow from "early spring" till as late as mid-July. Now scorzonera, like most roots (carrots are the notable exception) are slow-growing, with 120 days as a typical "days to maturity" figure. Moreover--again, like almost all roots--they are much improved by exposure to at least one good frost, so we don't want them ready too soon, though they don't get woody when large; as long as we can still get them out of the ground is as late as we can take them. If, as we vigorously recommend, you are growing them in a dedicated container, it's very simple: harvest when you're ready to direct-sow the seed, all in one operation. Dump the tub out (gently!), pick out your crop, dump the soil back into the tub (or whatever), and sow. Let the roots totally overwinter till same time next year. Probably the best time to sow is late spring, so the soil and air have warmed a bit, but before real heat sets in; but the margin of error is probably large--anytime in April or May would probably be fine.
Scorzonera can tolerate any sort of soil, but--as we noted above--they, and all "roots", do vastly better on soil that is very loose and friable, else they get stunted, show forked roots, and generally sit in their corners sucking lemons and sulking. For best results, dig your bed so as to loosen the soil as deeply as you can possibly manage, and remove all rocks and as many pebbles as possible, working in organic matter or even straight sand to make it good and loose. They like the more or less standard garden-soil pH of 6.5 to 6.8, though a little higher, perhaps up to 7.0, won't hurt. Scorzonera can benefit from a little extra potash in the soil.
As we noted earlier, it is a vast convenience in growing this vegetable to have them in a tub or suchlike container--preferably a pretty deep one--that you can, at harvest time, tip over and spill out, preferably onto a tarp or some such surface, so that you can harvest by simply sifting through the spilled soil for the roots; otherwise, harvest, especially if you have seeded the plants as close as possible, can be a nightmare, as they break off very easily.
It is also wise to not use much manure in roots beds--and absolutely never any that is not thoroughly composted--or you'll have forked roots galore. Scorzonera need good sun exposure. Like almost all roots, they are not frost-sensitive.
Scorzonera are normally planted out direct. Scorzonera seeds can have a low germination rate even under optimum conditions; it is wise to go ahead and plant several seeds at each point where a plant is wanted (you can't save the seed year to year anyway), then see what emerges and thin--if necessary--to the most vigorous seedling at each sowing spot when they look like they're starting to compete. To reduce germination time, before planting put your seeds in fairly warm (but not hot, lest you cook them) water, then let the water cool quickly; leave the seeds in the water--kept lukewarm--for about 12 hours before planting them. You can seed scorzonera fairly close together: indeed, for deep or raised beds, Jeavons recommends a mere 2 inches' separation, though 3 might work as well or better (especially in light of the difficulties of harvest extraction).
(Some gardeners like to treat scorzonera seeds as carrot seeds are often treated: mix in a radish seed or two at every sowing spot, so the earlier, more aggressive radish seedling can break the surface for the carrot--or scorzonera--seedling, then pull the radish stem when the later root-crop seedling emerges; we don't like putting radishes, a crucifer, in any place that is not a part of that season's crucifer beds in a rotation scheme. Even in a dedicated scorzonera container, that would mean wholly discarding and replacing the soil every season--no, thanks.)
Scorzonera may take a while to germinate, so be patient.
Growing is routine for root crops: keep them watered lightly but frequently, and cultivate thoroughly but carefully and shallowly.
As with most root crops, scorzonera famously improve notably in taste after at least one and preferably a few frosts (it has to do with temperature-triggered conversion of starches to sugars). They can be dug up as wanted and needed after the first frost or two; they can even stand in the garden right through the winter and beyond (which is what we recommend). They should not be dug before they have been through at least one good frost.
Besides the root, for which we chiefly grow the plant, the leaves can also be eaten, especially the young ones--usually after boiling, but the "beards" (especially young, fresh, and thus tender leaves) can be eaten raw. Young shoots can be used in the much same way as asparagus. And the pretty flowers are edible and can be added to salads (they are said to have an aroma reminiscent of cocoa).
Besides any links presented above on this page, the following ought to be especially helpful.
Plants For a Future Database: Scorzonera - tons of data on the vegetable, and links to lots more
Scorzonera: considerable history plus practical notes
Scorzonera is a member of the Asteraceae family, the asters (formerly called the Compositae), a useful food family also containing scorzonera's cousin salsify, plus the lettuces and many lettuce-like plants (such as chicory), artichokes, cardoon, sunchokes, and sunflowers.
Cultivation of scorzonera is thought to be recent: for as far back as we have documents mentioning crops, there is no description anywhere that seems to fit it till the 16th century. From then on, though, botanists did concern themselves with the species--describing it as wild, though sometimes introduced into botanical gardens; but it was not cited as a cultivated plant till a century later. In time, however, it became fashionable in many lands: Louis XIV of France was very fond of it.
Although scorzonera was probably first cultivated in Spain, its cultivation, curiously, has never been very important there. In 1801, a report states that "Scorzonera is usually sown on the edges of unoccupied beds, the empty spaces being profitably used by this tasty root", indicating a marginal rather than main crop. It's interesting that those same authors visualized a greater future agricultural importance for salsify than for scorzonera, which is not how things eventually worked out, though some breeding of scorzonera was needed before it surpassed salsify in both quality and productivity.
Scorzonera has medicinal properties, both real and fancied; as an example of the latter sort, it is considered in folklore to be an antidote to the bite of poisonous animals, which is why in Spanish it is called escorzonera, "herb against escuerzo (the toad).
The Diccionario de la lengua española of the Real Academia Española states that the name derives from the Latin "black root", owing to the root's color; moreover, in Italian scorza means "root" and nera "black". Nonetheless (as documented in Mattioli's Epistolarium medicinalium libri quinque of 1561, the folkloric interpretation of the name's origin seems the right one.
An interesting remark appears in the modern history of an institutional vegetable garden in Scandinavia: "Or note the price of Scorzonera, now regarded as a delicacy. In 1924 it was just barely more expensive than radishes!"
Scorzonera is rich in inulin, a starch not easily digested by humans and so generally passed right through the digestive system, but which can cause flatulence in some people. (Inulin is a very different thing from insulin.) Sunchokes--Jerusalem artichokes"--are another vegetable high in inulin.
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