Tragopogon porrifolius – Salsify

A botanical name to rejoice in. Doesn’t it sound like the name given to his eldest son by a classically-minded aristocrat? ‘Tragopogon – oh you must know Traggy.  His brother Xerxes was my fag at Eton’.

Back to the plant.  From the Greek tragon, billy-goat, and pogon, beard because of the hairy seed-head or pappus. Did you know that the hairy lobe of cartilage in front of men’s ears is also called a tragon?  I didn’t till this week.  Porrifolius because the leaves – unlike the dandelion which in other ways this resembles – are smooth and linear, like a leek (Latin porrus).  The flower is also called purple goat’s beard in English. The long spiky bracts, much longer than the petals, really give this flower a look.

People who don’t know the flower may know the roots which are cultivated as a vegetable – these were developed in Italy, arriving in the rest of Europe in the 17th century, and the name salsify comes from the Italian sassefrica – maybe there is some connection to salt or sauce in the name. It is a native of mostly southern Europe, as the tela botanica map shows:

A brief digression on the word ‘vegetable’. I was surprised that Geoffrey Grigson says this was not used in the sense of a garden plant for cooking until the late 17th century, and the earliest OED quotation is from 1768.  What did they call the stuff they ate with their meat before then?

The salsify roots are – or were – also called vegetable oyster,  because people thought they had a marine flavour (Richard Mabey says it tastes like baked salt fish). The French method of cooking them is to peel them then cook with lemon and butter. Jane Grigson recommends topping and tailing the roots, washing them well, then boiling for 30 minutes before plunging them in cold water and then peeling them.  They can then be put into salads, fried, or frittered – as you want. Don’t dig up wild plants by the root – these suggestions are for cultivated veg.

Not only are the flowers impressive, but so are the seedheads. Driving back home the other night the closed-up flowers looked like huge green candles in the headlights, and the dried head is like the biggest dandelion clock you’ll ever see.

Spiky, colourful, rootsy – the jazz has to be Charles Mingus and the album Blues and Roots (1960). A wonderful musician whose work I love very much, but in person, well, spiky: a friend of mine saw him at Ronnie Scott’s and went up to him to say ‘Great set, Mr Mingus’.  ’F… off’ replied the great man.  This is Moanin’ and from the first honks of the baritone sax (played by Pepper Adams) you know this is going to be fun.

Coming up soon:  this has given me an idea to do a series of blue flowers with some blues tunes.

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7 Comments

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7 responses to “Tragopogon porrifolius – Salsify

  1. A nice early post about one of my favourite wild plants! The only time I remember eating the roots (home-grown by friends G and N near Oxford – do you remember?) they tasted delicate and delicious but not at all like oysters.

  2. as someone who doesn’t have much external jazz input these days – and doesn’t listen to the radio much – i really appreciate these embedments – whether familiar (like this) or completely unknown – a personal & public service . . .

  3. bonnie poppe

    really enjoying the jazz with the plants … great idea ….

  4. It’s great to read a bit more on this plant – it grows on my allotments, basically it self seeds around the site and always gives a great display late May to early June

    • The first time I ate salsify was from a friend’s garden in England – but I didn’t notice the flowers till we moved to France. I envy you your allotment display.

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