Despite less winter rain than usual, the open spaces on the hillsides in the Gardens at Heather Farm are greening — thanks to the spring annuals we cultivate and the ever-present weeds intermingling with those annuals, as if we had planted them, too.
In defense of weeds, I try to remember the many attributes they add to the landscape, but their story has become hazy with the passage of time, our disconnection from the natural world and our love of orderly gardens. Still, weeds can tell us many things about our garden soil, water flow, nutrients and fertility.
And we mustn’t forget that they were the first vegetables, home medicines and dyes. Some are abrasive enough for cleaning pewter, others sturdy enough for arrow shafts. Their flowers provide nectar for bees and other pollinators, which are beginning to emerge as we celebrate the spring equinox.
One of the many welcome weeds here in the gardens is Tragopogon porrifolius, commonly known as Salsify, Purple Goatsbeard or Vegetable Oyster. It is a biennial herb and a member of the Asteraceae, or daisy, family. The genus Tragopogon is derived from the Greek words tragos, meaning “goat,” and pogon, meaning “beard” (which refers to the feathery hairs when the plant is in seed). The species name porrifolius refers to the leeklike leaves, while the common name Salsify comes from the old Latin solsequium (sol meaning sun and sequens meaning following, since the flower is heliotropic).
Native to southern Europe, Salsify is cultivated worldwide for its creamy white roots, which can be cooked or used as a relish. The flavor is said to resemble that of oysters. The root can be baked, stewed or used in soup.
Culpeper’s Complete Herbal, an encyclopedia of remedies published by Nicholas Culpeper in 1653, says the Salsify root should be stewed to treat gall problems and jaundice.
I have not tried eating Salsify, but I thin it from the gardens here so it does not take over, leaving little patches intermittently to help support our pollinators, birds and bees.
— Patrice Hanlon