Heirloom Root Vegetable Varieties

Learn about unusual heirloom root vegetable varieties and how to make a delightful beignets recipe.

October 8, 2013

By William Woys Weaver

Heirloom Vegetable Gardening by William Woys Weaver is the culmination of some thirty years of first-hand knowledge of growing, tasting and cooking with heirloom vegetables. A staunch supporter of organic gardening techniques, Will Weaver has grown every one of the featured 280 varieties of vegetables, and he walks the novice gardener through the basics of planting, growing and seed saving. Sprinkled throughout the gardening advice are old-fashioned recipes — such as Parsnip Cake, Artichoke Pie and Pepper Wine — that highlight the flavor of these vegetables. The following excerpt on heirloom root vegetable varieties was taken from chapter 37, “Unusual Root Vegetables.”

Buy the brand new e-book of Weaver’s gardening classic in the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: Heirloom Vegetable Gardening.

'Chufa'
'Crosnes'
'Earth Chestnut'
'Edible Tuber Dahlia' 
'Evening Primrose'
'Ocha'
'Salsify'
'Scorzonera' 
'Skirret'
'Turnip-Rooted Chervil'
Beignets Recipe

To locate mail order companies that carry these heirloom root vegetable varieties, use our Custom Seed and Plant Finder. Check out our collection of articles on growing and harvesting heirloom vegetables in Gardening With Heirloom Vegetables.

A Brief History of Unusual Heirloom Root Vegetable Varieties

Root Vegetable

'Chufa' or 'Earth Almond'
Cyperus esculentus

This easy-to-grow perennial vegetable, with 2-to-2 1/2-foot-long wispy, grasslike leaves, resembles several other members of the Cyperus genus, especially the common weed Cyperus strigosus, Chufa Leafwith which it should not be confused. The weed is native, but chufa was introduced from Spain in the eighteenth century in order to make a refreshing acid beverage called orgeat. The tubers were soaked for two or three days in spring water, then pounded. The liquid that ran off was strained and chilled on ice as a cooling summer drink. Chufa has since naturalized in the light sandy soils of the middle and southern states. In my part of the country it is commonly called Yellow Nut Grass, or simply Nut Grass, and at one time it was a common vegetable in our farm markets. The tubers, normally about 1/4 inch in diameter, will grow much larger under cultivation if the soil conditions are right and the plants are given a healthy dose of rock phosphate each spring.

In the Report of the Commissioner of Patents (1856, 259), Victor Scriba, a Pennsylvania Dutch newspaper publisher in Pittsburgh, described growing chufa in 1853 and noted that it could be eaten raw like a chestnut or almond. In texture it is somewhat mealy like a chestnut, yet with a distinct almondlike flavor. It was used by country people as an almond substitute in cookies and confectionery, and was even pounded with sugar to make a type of faux marzipan once quite popular among the Pennsylvania Germans. The Pennsylfaanisch word for it is Aerdmandel or “earth almond,” and it is from the Pennsylvania Dutch that this alternate name derives.

The tubers should be planted 6 inches apart where they are to grow for several years. Mature clumps should be divided from time to time, and only the largest tubers replanted. This will encourage the plant to develop large tubers over a period of years. The smallness of the tuber is the only drawback at present; a concerted effort to develop a large-rooted variety would doubtless result in greater interest in this vegetable, especially since it can be eaten by people who are normally allergic to nuts.

'Crosnes'
Stachys affinis

Crosnes are a perennial root vegetable with small tubers that have the texture of water chestnuts. The shape of the tubers is curious and knobby. In France, where they are popular in the region around Lyon, crosnes are often served as an hors d’oeuvre with cardoons.Crosnes Vegetable

Crosnes were sent from Beijing to France in 1882 by Russian botanist Emillii Vasilevich Bretschneider (1833–1901), whose famous botanical exploits in China were later described in a fascinating account published in 1898. By 1889, the American Garden (10:101, 193, and 228) began reporting on the French successes with this “new vegetable.” This was followed during the 1890s with a burst of interest in crosnes as part of a larger but passing fascination for Japanese vegetables and fruits. In Japan, crosnes are known as choro-gi. One of the leading promoters of the vegetable in this country was the seed firm of V. H. Hallock & Sons in Queens, New York, which advertised this “wonderful new food” under the unlikeliest of names: Vegetable White Bait. The firm’s advertisements in the Farm and Fireside (March 1, 1890, 188) claimed that the tubers were a bargain at 35 cents per dozen. One plant produces many hundreds.

Since the 1890s, crosnes have been grown off and on as a curiosity, but recently there has been renewed interest in them as a winter vegetable. A few years ago I acquired plants from Phyllis Hanes, former food editor for the Christian Science Monitor. She had been growing crosnes in Boston for several years. The plants are extremely hardy, and their culture is simple.

The tubers are planted in the fall in rich, light soil in a sunny location. They should be set in the ground about 6 inches deep and 12 inches apart, for generous spacing encourages the development of tubers. Once the plants sprout the following spring, allow them to reach about I foot in height, then keep them cropped back to 6 inches. Cropping will direct growth into the roots. Plants that’are allowed to flower will produce small tubers. Over the summer, keep the plants well watered, since they are sensitive to drought. In the fall, after frost kills the tops, the tubers can be harvested as needed. They can be grown in most parts of the United States and will withstand severe winters.

Due to their knobby shape, crosnes are not pared. The skin contains much of the flavor and is also rich in vitamins and minerals. To wash the tubers, place them in a large bowl of water and scrub them with a vegetable brush. A toothbrush purchased for this purpose will work beautifully, especially the brushes designed for false teeth. Once cleaned, the tubers can be eaten raw as a snack, added to casseroles, or mixed with stir-fries. They retain their crunchiness when cooked.

'Earth Chestnut'
Bunium bulbocastanum

Earth ChestnutIntroduction of this plant from East Asia was attempted in the 1870s under the name Prescott chervil, but the venture failed. Today it is known as Earth Chestnut or Tuberous-Rooted Caraway, and to be frank, none of the names fit it very well. The leaf and plant resemble parsley, although they are rather neutral in taste. The seed is small like parsley and easy to grow. Plants should be started indoors in the spring, then planted out after the threat of frost has passed. Plants should be spaced about 10 inches apart; crowding will only result in small roots. Allow the plants to establish for at least I year before harvesting the tubers, which are about the size of a thumb. They can be eaten raw in salads or boiled and served as a vegetable. The taste and texture remind me of celery root. The leaves make a good mix with salad burnet, which they resemble somewhat in shape.

The earth chestnut is extremely hardy in Pennsylvania, where it is more or less evergreen during the winter; thus it makes an excellent winter salad green. In fact, the plant continues to grow even under the snow.

'Edible Tuber Dahlia'
Dahlia sp.

Perhaps it is my quirkiness, but I am always game to try new things, especially if it means introducing more cheerful color into my vegetable garden. The edible tuber dahlia recently surfaced as an untried culinary heirloom, and the adventure is worth reporting, for I have never seen dahlias listed as vegetables. In fact, Boston horticulturist Joseph Breck had this to say about dahlia tubers: “There is no danger from rats or mice or any other creature. I never knew an animal to touch them. You could not catch an old rat even to smell of them the second time” (1858, 50–51). Breck was as partial to dahlias as Victorian gardeners were to garlic. However, Roland Green, an early nineteenth-century flower specialist, noted in 1828 that the dahlia root resembled a sweet potato, and this also happens to be a fairly accurate description of its culinary merits.

The oral history concerning this attractive red double-flowering dahlia is that it was preserved among the Nanticoke Indians of Maryland for over 400 years. This pedigree is an example of how the mythology of the American Indian sometimes takes possession of an heirloom vegetable and provides it with an authenticity that is not above reproach. Simple mathematics explodes the story.

Dahlias were known in the back hills of Mexico but were not introduced to the outside world until 1787, when the flower was discovered during a French botanical expedition to Oaxaca. In 1789 seed was sent to Madrid under the name Mexican aster. This seed produced tall, gangly plants with uninteresting single flowers. It is believed that the early seed sent to Europe contained a mixture of two separate species, Dahlia pinnata (which grows about 6 feet tall) and Dahlia coccinea (which grows about 10 feet tall). All of the cultivated dahlias known today were created through hybridization or selection from these two species.

Double-flowering dahlias, like the edible one, appeared as sports in the botanic garden of Lou-vain in Belgium during the 1820s, and from that source the rage for double flowering and much overpriced dahlias emanated. American seedsman Thomas Bridgeman published a catalog of over 200 double varieties in his Florist’s Guide (1836, 60–74), with a dizzying abundance of red ones. The edible dahlia of the Nanticoke Indians is probably a variety of Victorian “decorative dahlia,” one of the recognized dahlia types, and with persistent research through old colored plates of dahlias, its true origin may someday be discovered. In the meantime, we shall cook it.

It is much to the credit of the Nanticokes that an observant gardener perhaps a hundred years ago, and not before that, noted certain similarities between the dahlia and the Jerusalem artichoke, for both belong to the helianthus tribe. It was a brave cook who first tried the roots for dinner, but one who must certainly have had an excellent understanding of plants — from missionary friends in Mexico with Mixteca connections. Eating a potato does not induce pangs of guilt, but eating a dahlia tuber provokes sadness for depriving the soul of an inspiring flower. To enjoy the dahlia tubers, it is important to dissociate them from thoughts of summer, and never serve them to friends who have first seen the flower, for this will only stir up endless quibbling about extraordinary waste and tastes so jaded they can only be satisfied by the sacrifice of beautiful and costly plants.

To my surprise, each plant produces four or five large, plump tubers. Thus, within the period of two or three seasons, it is possible to have an overabundance of tubers that cries out for thinning down to manageable size. Furthermore, anyone who has ever grown dahlias knows that if the tuber is accidentally broken from its stem, it will not grow. This is where cooking the culls makes absolute sense, and hunger for a gourmet treat takes hold of culinary fancy. And yes indeed, the flavor of the dahlia tuber goes perfectly well with a glass of red wine. Its approval is therefore assured.

'Evening Primrose'
Oenothera biennis

The evening primrose is native to eastern North America, Evening Primrose Leafbut in colonial times its brilliant yellow flower caught the attention of European gardeners, so the wild form has undergone considerable alteration at the hands of plant breeders. The Société Royal d’Agriculture of Lyon, France, convened a small conference in 1838 to discuss the idea of cultivating the evening primrose as a root vegetable. The root is fleshy and rich in nutrients, and the plant thrives in poor soil. Such features would not only recommend it as a new type of food, similar to a turnip, but would also provide economic possibilities for farmers with poor ground.

Considerable effort was devoted to improving the evening primrose between 1838 and 1845, primarily in France and Germany, but the end result, it would appear, was only larger plants with more profuse flowers. The roots of the improved strain are indeed larger than the wild ones, but often irregular in shape. However, this improved strain came back to America, and it is the one most commonly cultivated in gardens. As an experiment, I dug some plants from the wild just to see if the differences were real, and they were.

The boiled root is generally used in salads, mixed with cardoons or other blanched vegetables. Personally, I find the taste of the root peppery and unpleasant, like some wild mushrooms I have eaten with very sad results, or perhaps, more accurately, like biting into a spoonful of mustard seeds. Yet I have tasted roots from other gardens that are almost as sweet as carrots. This suggests to me that soil may determine the success of this vegetable more than human intervention.

The green tops overwinter like Turkish rocket, which they resemble in taste. As its botanical name would imply, evening primrose is a biennial, although some plants bloom the first year. It commonly grows to a height of 6 feet and is covered with bright yellow flowers for much of the summer. As an accent plant, it is showy in the kitchen garden, but it reseeds promiscuously. I allow volunteers to establish themselves here and there and enjoy the random spots of color, but constant weeding of seedlings is necessary to keep it under control.

'Ocha', or 'Oca'
Oxalis tuberosa

Red Ocha LeafThe ancestors of the Incas perfected the culture of ocha more than a thousand years ago and developed many different varieties, yet Europeans took little note of the plant until the nineteenth century. Tubers were sent from Peru to England in 1829, where they immediately caused a gardening sensation, even though the plants had been identified by Nicholas de Jacquin in the eighteenth century. James Mitchell, an English gardener who had grown ocha, wrote an article on its culinary qualities for the Gardener’s Magazine (1833, 78–79). The vegetable was eventually trialed in the garden of the London Horticultural Society, followed shortly thereafter by a dinner in which several courses of ocha were served.

Oxalis deppei, now commonly grown under the name Good Luck plant or Lucky Clover, was introduced from Mexico in 1837 and also trialed by the London Horticultural Society. It was cooked as a root vegetable and pronounced “delicate.” Fearing Burr (1865, 38) wrote that it was served like asparagus, which is not possible since no part of the plant produces a stem even suggestive of asparagus. However, if the bulbs are planted in sandy soil, they will develop by the end of the summer into a cluster of perhaps 10 or 12 and will have sent down a white carrotlike root about 3 inches long. This makes a very delicate vegetable, but it must be allowed to mellow in the sun for several days to remove the bitterness. Furthermore, the “shamrock” leaves and the cheerful pink flowers are delightful in salads; that is the reason I cultivate it.Wood Sorrel

Ocha entered the United States about the same time that it appeared in England, except that our earliest stock came from Chile. It remained an exotic vegetable among our gentleman gardeners for much of the nineteenth century because interest in it was more or less shoved aside by the agricultural crisis brought on by the failure of the potato crop in the 1840s. Oddly, ocha would have made a good alternative. The only drawback is its acidity, which, if not properly dealt with, will impart a bitterness to the root, as with Oxalis deppei. Exposing the tubers to the sun for ten days converts this bitterness to sugars.

Fearing Burr (1865, 36–37) listed two varieties, the white-rooted (oca blanca) and the red-rooted (oca Colorado). The red variety was depicted in the Album Vilmorin (1869, 20), as well as a yellow one. There are also “blush” and brightly speckled varieties. I grow all of them, and they are harvested the same way.

The tubers resemble miniature Jerusalem artichoke roots, except that they are waxy on the surface and brilliantly colored. They are best started in individual pots in the late winter so that the plants are well established when they are set out after all danger of frost has passed. Loose, moist, sandy soil is their preference, and it is better to situate them in partial shade, because the blasting heat of summer may kill them. A drought certainly will, for these are plants from the High Andes that thrive in cool weather, but they also need a long growing season.Red Ocha

The tops or greens can be eaten as a vegetable. The stems are fleshy and slightly sour. For root culture it is important to leave the tops alone, because the plant must bloom if it is to produce a large crop of tubers, a characteristic it shares with the potato. Once it has bloomed, the tubers can be harvested. Those reserved for seed stock should be stored in a cool dry place until late winter, when the process of planting is repeated.

Ocha is day-length sensitive and will not form tubers until there are less than twelve hours of light a day. For most of the United States, this means that tubers will not form until November, so the plants must be covered to protect them from frost at least until Thanksgiving. In areas of the country where the ground freezes before November I, ocha may not be an option, since this last stage is critical to the development of the crop.

Sara McCamant, a member of Seed Savers Exchange in California, not only sent me some of the most exquisite pink and white ochas I have ever seen but kindly passed along cultural advice that proved quite helpful. Sara’s experience with ocha, due to its preference for cool weather, has been to plant it in a somewhat shady location, a conclusion I reached intuitively by observing its reaction to the hot sun. White OcaAll members of the Oxalis genus thrive better in sandy soil; therefore I have created a special bed for ocha by double-digging and using cactus potting mixture as infill. This has tripled my yields.

It was interesting to see Sara’s ochas, because they were quite different from mine in skin texture. Hers had skins more like that of a potato, in outward appearance anyway — ocha skin is paper-thin — whereas mine have waxy skins. There is very little written on the differences in ocha varieties, yet they go far beyond color and skin texture. There are large differences in the texture of the flesh, and some varieties contain high amounts of oxalic acid, which gives them a bitter taste. This bitterness can be overcome by drying the tubers in the sun, which quickly transforms many of the starches to sugar, a technique used by the ancient Incas. Unfortunately, people who are allergic to spinach (which contains oxalic acid) are likely to experience a severe reaction and therefore should avoid ocha.

'Salsify'
Tragopogon porrifolius

Salsify has naturalized in my garden. I planted it a few years ago in a raised bed half filled with sand, and the salsify has taken over. It thrives on ground where it can drive its root straight and deep, and an occasional summer flood does not hurt it. My grandfather called salsify oyster plant, and I can remember it in his garden: tall wispy leaves like giant grass, and a flower some four feet high that opened in the morning a brilliant red. This was the old Pennsylvania Dutch Hawwerwurzel (oat root), the real heirloom salsify of colonial America. I wish today that I had that red-flowering variety, because it is now extremely rare.Salsify Vegetable

Salsify was cultivated by the ancient Greeks and Romans. It was discussed by the classical authors Theophrastos, Dioskorides, and Pliny. They did not mention the flower color, but it was probably the red variety, for that was the kind cultivated in the Middle Ages and called oculus porci (pig’s eye). Old herbals show both the red and the yellow types, the yellow-flowering one being the wild form, Tragopogon pratense, now naturalized in America and known as goat’s-beard.

The red-flowering form was generally called the “common” variety in early American garden books, although as Charles Hovey pointed out in the Magazine of Horticulture (1842, 129–30), “to the mass of the community, it is quite a new vegetable.” Aside from the that grown by Pennsylvania Dutch, who had been cultivating it since the 1700s, salsify was, in Hovey’s words “scarcely seen beyond the precincts of the kitchen gardens of gentlemen in the vicinity of our large cities.” Its popularity increased by the time of the Civil War, and the old red variety survived in country kitchen gardens into this century, but was eventually replaced by the blue-flowering varieties we know today.

In 1872 Rochester, New York, seedsman James Vick began offering a “new French variety” called New Blue Flowered, “said to be superior in flavor and size to the old sorts.” The J. M. Thorburn seed company of New York began distributing another blue-flowering variety in the late 1880s called Mammoth Sandwich Island, which is the variety of salsify that I recommend to heirloom gardeners. The American Garden (1889, 99, 187) promoted it when the variety was first introduced: “We are now using this delicious vegetable… its yield is double that of the Common variety.”

Salsify is a biennial, blooming the second year. The roots of first-year plants taste vaguely like oysters, which is why they were popular pureed into soups or cooked as a vegetable side dish with fish. Second-year plants can be woody, but the tender ones taste more like asparagus. During the early summer of the second year, they bloom with flowers resembling a dandelion. The seedheads develop feathers that carry off the seed during gusts of wind. When the seedheads are dry, the seed can be separated and dried. Since the seed goes into deep dormancy unless planted immediately after it ripens, I think it is best to plant it then and there where it is to grow and thus keep the salsify bed in a constant state of production. Seed purchased commercially is in deep dormancy and must be planted early in the spring when the potatoes go in, mid-March if possible. This cold period will cause it to germinate. Contrary to folklore, there are no “male” and “female” seeds.

The blue-flowering salsify will only cross with other blue-and red-flowering varieties. It will not cross with goat’s-beard or with scorzonera.

Both salsify and scorzonera make delightful beignets. The following beignets recipe is from A. B. Beauvillier’s Art of Cookery (1827, 243).

Beignets de Salsifi et de Scorsonère

Take of one of these a sufficient quantity, and cut them about three inches long; put in a stewpan a little water and vinegar; throw them in as they are scraped; wash and cut them; put upon the fire a pot with water, salt, vinegar, and a bit of butter rubbed in flour; when they are done enough drain and marinade them in salt, pepper, and vinegar; when ready to serve, dip them into a light paste (pâté à frire); put them into a frying pan; when they are a fine colour, drain them upon a cloth.

The reason for putting the salsify in acidulated water is that exposed to the air, the pared root discolors. Vinegar will also remove the stains on the hands resulting from the sap. Normally, before cooking either scorzonera or salsify, they are first blanched in a flour-and-water blanc, which keeps them from turning black.

'Scorzonera'
Scorzonera hispanica

Compared to salsify, the cultivation of scorzonera is quite recent. Leonhard Rauwolf observed scorzonera at Aleppo in 1575, noting that the locals called it corton. Shortly after this, the plant was brought under cultivation in Italy, and by 1660 it began appearing in French kitchen gardens. By the 1680s it was cultivated in Switzerland and Germany. By 1770 it had become well known throughout Europe and was already under cultivation in colonial America, particularly by the Pennsylvania Dutch. Black SalsifyIn the 1772 supplement to Christopher Sauer’s Kurtzgefasstes Kräuterbuch, scorzonera is discussed under its old Pennsylvania Dutch name Schlangenmord (snake bane). It was known to other colonial Americans as viper grass, owing to its presumed medical usefulness against snake bites.

By 1865, there were four cultivated varieties, including one from Russia known as géante noir de Russie. This is the heirloom variety that I raise, since it is the most reliable and consistent producer for culinary purposes. The Album Vilmorin (1869, 12) included a handsome illustration of the Russian scorzonera in color. This appears to be the basis for the line drawing in the 1885 Vilmorin garden book.

The root of scorzonera can be prepared like salsify, but it is richer tasting and contains a large amount of vitamin E. Unlike salsify, the root of scorzonera is black and will continue to grow in the ground for several years without turning tough. If a bed of it is large enough, and well established over a period of five years, it is possible to plant new seed and harvest very large roots every season.

Furthermore, unlike salsify, the young leaves of scorzonera make a delicious salad green. If the flowering plants are pruned to the ground after they bloom in the summer, they will sprout a crop of greens for the fall. The greens are excellent in étouffées (covered steamed dishes) and cook perfectly in the microwave oven. The leaf is different from salsify in that it is very broad and not at all bitter. The culture for scorzonera is the same as for salsify, except that the scorzonera flower is yellow. The seed-saving techniques are also the same.

'Skirret'
Sium sisarum

Skirret is one of those vegetables that has always hovered near the periphery of the kitchen garden, a weedy-looking plant not fully tamed, yet passionately advocated by those who enjoy its roots. It fascinates me in a way because it evokes flavors from another age. When I set out a dish of skirrets on an old china plate, the light coming through the window invariably captures the mood of a Vermeer painting. It is food made for quiet contemplation.

English colonists in this country called it water parsnip due to its affinity for swampy ground and banks by streams. The Pennsylvania Dutch called it Wassermarrich or water marrow, in reference to the marrowlike richness of the root. Christopher Sauer noted in the 1776 supplement to his herbal, “when it is still young and crisp, it is fit for the kitchen, with pureed greens and herbs, in soups, or in salads.”Skirret Vegetable

The plant was introduced into Germany and Eastern Europe during the Middle Ages, yet it has been known in England only since 1548. Wherever it has been planted, it has been treated as a substitute for parsnips. Skirret was especially popular with the European peasantry because its preference for wet ground meant that it could be cultivated on boggy land or in other marginal areas where most garden vegetables do not thrive. Perennial, easy to grow, and free of pests, it offered many advantages over parsnips, especially the lack of the irritating leaves that made parsnips so unpleasant to harvest. Furthermore, with its Celtic name — siu means water in Celtic — the plant was thought to embody a vast array of medical benefits, one reason why there is so much space devoted to it in old herbals. In spite of this, skirret was never as popular in England as it was on the Continent.

Richard Bradley remarked in his New Improvements of Planting and Gardening (1718, 129–30) that “the Skirret has a very agreeable Root, altho’ it is propagated but in a few Gardens; and it may be, the Rarity of it is owing to the Want of the right way of cultivating it.” The right way of cultivating it is simple. Seed can be started in the early spring as easily as raising parsley. This is how I began my patch several years ago. There is much hocus-pocus about its being biennial, and needing to be dug up in regions where the ground freezes in the winter, but none of this is true. It is a hardy perennial.

The plants should be situated in the full sun about 12 inches apart, for they grow 4 to 6 feet tall, another reason why they should be planted toward the back of the kitchen garden. Once the plants begin to bloom (the white flowers look like Queen Anne’s lace), they should be staked to prevent them from toppling over in a heavy rain. This also keeps the seed high and dry. Yet once a patch is established, it is not necessary to gather seed. Skirret can be propagated from rootlets.

The plant does best in sandy soil, or should I say, the root formation is better, since in loose ground they grow long and straight. The largest roots will be about the size of the small finger in diameter and perhaps a foot long. They should be pared before cooking. As the roots are harvested over the winter, save the rootlets too small for cookery for next year’s crop. Either return them to the ground or store them in damp sand. I use a Styrofoam ice chest for this purpose. Plants that produce woody roots should be discarded; only plant rootlets from plants with tender roots. By this selective method it is possible over a period of a few years to develop a very tender strain of skirret.

At its best, skirret is sweeter than parsnip. As a child, I remember an old cousin in Lancaster County who made a pie of skirrets, apple schnitz, and ham. It was the perfect thing for a cold winter day.

'Turnip-Rooted Chervil'
Chaerophyllum bulbosum

This biennial is a native of southern Europe with hairy leaves and violet-tinted stems. It grows about 3 feet tall and produces a carrotlike root about 5 to 6 inches long, with a dark slate-colored skin and cream-yellow flesh. It is the most elegant root vegetable I grow, and one of the most difficult to grow from seed. In spite of its cultural difficulties, it gained considerable attention in the 1850s, and Fearing Burr (1865, 29–30) reported on the Vilmorin experiments with it. The idea in this country was to grow it as a luxury table vegetable, and some market gardeners began raising it around Washington, Baltimore, and Philadelphia. The plant became naturalized to some extent in all three areas after its cultivation was abandoned at the turn of this century, but recent development of old farmland into housing tracts has destroyed many of those sites.Turnip Rooted Chervil

I can only say that the root is worth the trouble. It is to carrots what champagne is to wine, or the true caviar of the vegetable world, yes, better even than feasting on dahlias. The plant is not much to look at. In fact, toward the end of the summer, it dies. At that point, the root can be harvested as needed. The flavor improves greatly if the roots are left in the ground, yet because they are attacked by nematodes and other boring insects, I store them in cool, damp sand. When the roots are cooked, they have an aromatic flavor similar to chervil, which pairs beautifully with fine white wines.

The plants bloom before dying and should be watched constantly so that the seed is harvested when it is ripe. The seed can be dried and planted the following spring, but it must be stratified; otherwise germination may take two years or not at all. This is because the seed goes into deep dormancy unless planted in the fall where it is to grow. I collect it immediately and plant it. It then germinates the following spring, and in this manner, crops can be kept going from year to year. If it is at all possible to purchase young potted plants from a nursery that sells specialty herbs, I would recommend starting with them. Those plants can be used to start seed in the fall rather than fussing with dormant seed that may or may not be worth the time and trouble.

Find seeds for these heirlooms and more with our Custom Seed and Plant Finder.


Buy the brand new e-book of Weaver’s gardening classic in the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: Heirloom Vegetable Gardening.

Photos and Illustrations Courtesy William Woys Weaver.





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