Unusual Vegetables: Scorzonera, Salsify, and Celtuce

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PHOTO: MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF
Salsify is also known as vegetable oytser.

As in years past, you’re going to in a garden next spring. Only this time you want to do it as early as possible. And in terms of what you plant, you’ve also decided to try venturing a little out of your comfort zone. Part of the garden will host venerable standbys like tomatoes, peas, and broccoli, and part will be a test bed for more unusual vegetables. Are there any such cultivars that will withstand cooler weather? Certainly! In fact there are at least three: scorzonera, salsify, and celtuce.

Scorzonera & Salsify 

These two root crops have a taste reminiscent of oysters.

Scorzonera hispanica, known as scorzonera, also
called black salsify, black oyster plant, and viper’s
grass.

Tragopogon porrifolius , known as salsify, also
called white salsify, oyster plant, and vegetable oyster.

Growing range: Throughout America.

History: Originating in the Mediterranean
area, scorzonera and salsify were foraged and used by the
ancient Romans as well as the Greeks. People never thought
to cultivate them until sometime around the 1500s. They
were then used for ornamental, medicinal, and culinary
purposes. In the Middle Ages, scorzonera was considered a
powerful tonic and snakebite cure — hence the name
viper’s grass. Salsify came to America in the 1700s and was
at one time a popular root crop. When modern refrigeration
and shipping techniques made the storage of perishable
foods easy, salsify fell out of favor.

Appearance: Scorzonera, or black salsify,
has a uniformly straight root that’s covered with a
charcoal or brown-gray, somewhat slippery skin. It usually
grows longer, straighter, and smoother than salsify. The
leaves look like a clump of coarse grass. With some
varieties, the leaves are “cut and come again” greens that
make a fresh addition to salads.

Salsify, or white salsify, has a root about the size of a
large carrot. Bumpy like a parsnip, the salsify root has
dirty-beige skin. The root looks a bit wilder than
scorzonera and the leaves also look like a clump of grass.
(Indeed, many people have weeded out young salsify or
scorzonera and then wondered why their crop didn’t
germinate!) Both plants are biennials.

Scorzonera has an oyster-like taste. Salsify’s flavor has
been described as a cross between oysters and asparagus.
Some people complain that salsify is blander, more fibrous,
and harder to peel than scorzonera. Others remain loyal to
salsify. Grow small plantings of both and decide for
yourself.

Planting: Both plants are grown the same
way. Sow seed as early in the spring as the ground can be
worked. The frosts of spring and fall will only improve the
roots’ flavor, and salsify and scorzonera need at least 120
days to create good-sized tubers. In warm climates, you can
plant about four months before the first frost or three months
before the onset of cool weather.

Work the soil until it’s loose and rock-free at least a
foot deep. Do not use fresh manure as it makes roots fork.
Because potassium helps build healthy roots, wood ashes,
granite, or green sand are good additions. The pH should be
close to neutral (between 6.0 and 8.0).

Sow the seeds thickly, 1 inch deep in rows that are 12 to
15 inches apart, then thin the seedlings to about 4 inches
apart. Or start the seeds in flats where they can get off
to a good start without accidentally being weeded out, and
then transplant. You can either let a few plants go to seed
(this will happen the following spring) or buy new seed
each year, but don’t expect any unused seed to last for an
extra year. It probably won’t.

Culture: Salsify and scorzonera need
little care. They are not as domesticated as most common
root crops, so they are hardier and more self-sufficient.
They seem to grow, out of sight and out of mind, until
ready to harvest.

Pests: Virtually none.

Harvest: Both oyster plants definitely
taste best fresh from the ground. They discolor and lose
flavor quickly once dug; all fall, dig only what you need
at the time. Be sure to dig deeply so you get the whole
root without cutting it or it will “bleed.”

Right before the ground freezes solid (if that happens in
your area), dig what you will need for the harshest of
winter and store in damp sand in a root cellar or outdoor
pit with a lid. Cut off the tops of the remaining roots and
mulch them heavily. When the soil thaws in spring, dig
those last roots and store them in a dark place to prevent
sprouting.

You should scrub the roots before cooking but it’s best not
to peel them. The skin can be rubbed off afterwards, if you
prefer, but leave it on at least that long so it can
contribute flavor and vitamins. Cover freshly cooked roots
with a weak lemon juice or vinegar solution to avoid
discoloration (unless they will be an ingredient in a soup,
soufflé, or other dish where they will not be
exposed to air). Both vegetables do not can or freeze well.

Uses: Salsify and scorzonera are often
used to make mock oyster soup or chowder. They are also
good steamed and served with butter or special sauces,
fried, baked or braised with meats, and in stews, soups,
soufflés and quiches.

Nutrition: A good source of calcium, iron,
and phosphorus.

Celtuce

True to its name, this one offers two vegetables at once:
the flavors of celery and lettuce.

Lactuca sativa var. asparagina , also
called asparagus lettuce, stem lettuce, and Chinese
lettuce.

Growing range: Most of the U.S. —
wherever lettuce will grow.

History: Celtuce originated in China and
is often called Chinese lettuce in seed catalogs. It was
apparently first brought from China to America in 1940 by a
returning missionary.

Appearance: The name, appearance, and
taste are all combinations of celery and lettuce. First to
appear are lettucy leaves: light green and elongated but
not deeply wrinkled. Though soft in texture, these fresh
greens stand up to heat, cold, and even salad dressing
surprisingly well. The second growth is the celery-like
stalk or base that looks somewhat like a stalk of broccoli
with its leaves removed. A mature plant looks a little like
a miniature tropical tree.

Planting: Celtuce tolerates a wide variety
of soils. In fact, it does far better in clay soil than
lettuce does. Of course, building your soil into good tilth
and boosting its fertility with compost or aged manure will
give you an even better crop.

This is one of those vegetables that gives you an excuse to
garden early in the season. You can start seed as early as
the ground can be worked. Plant seeds shallowly, as you
would lettuce seeds, only 1/4-inch deep in rows 12 to 18
inches apart. Remember to water often. In fact, you may
want to lay boards, burlap, etc., over the ground to help
keep the top layer moist so your seeds won’t dry out. Check
daily, and remove the cover as soon as germination has
begun.

Culture: You can start enjoying the
lettuce-like leaves about a month and a half after planting.
If you plant your seeds fairly close together, you can make
several thinnings — this will give you a much larger
harvest for the same space. Besides, the young and tender
leaves of the first growth taste the best. You can even sow
the rows themselves two to three times closer than normal
and thin out whole rows.

Continue to provide plenty of water. They grow quickly and
will soon keep most weeds shaded out, though you may need
to weed some while the crop is still young.

Pests: Chinese lettuce is much more
resistant to pests than ordinary lettuce. Still, slugs,
aphids, cutworms, or leafhoppers could bother your crop. To
control slugs, handpick them at night, set ground-level
saucers of beer for them to hide under (then collect them),
or treat plants with diatomaceous earth or wormwood tea. A
strong water spray, yellow sticky traps, ladybugs or
diatomaceous earth should help control aphids. To stop
cutworms, spray them with Bacillusthuringiensis, handpick them at night, or mulch
plants with a rough material like oak leaves, crushed egg
shells, or damp wood ashes. Or put a stiff collar (like a
yogurt container with the bottom removed) around the plant.
Limit leafhoppers by covering young plants with a
spunbonded row cover or by dusting with pyrethrum or
diatomaceous earth.

Harvest: In about 45 days you can begin
the harvest of the “tuce” part of the celtuce. Pick the
outer leaves to keep the center producing new ones. Celtuce
leaves wilt quickly, so pick just before a meal or store in
the refrigerator.

The leaves might develop a bitter, milky juice when broken,
just like lettuce that’s past its prime. This is usually
while the stalk is being formed. Depending on your growing
conditions, your leaf harvest may be short, with only young
leaves being palatable, or quite long, with larger leaves
tasting great too.

Eventually, about three months after planting, the “cel” part
is ready to harvest. Pull whole plants and cut off the
roots. Next, strip the leaves and then peel the outer skin
(it also contains milky sap). The light green inner core is
now ready to use whenever the crunch of celery is needed.
Unpeeled stalks will keep in the refrigerator for about as
long as celery would.

Uses: Both parts of celtuce can be enjoyed
in salads, soups, stews, and sandwiches. They can also be
stir-fried, sautéed with a sauce of your choice, or
pureed. The stalks can be served with dip.

Nutrition: High in vitamin C — up to
four times that of lettuce.