When people first hear about foraging from me, a response I typically get is "Oh, so you eat grass?" I've noticed that most people who aren't immersed in the world of wild plants sees large swaths of green and instead of noticing different plants, they just see a green blur, which they dub grass.
I explain to them that no, I don't eat grass, as I'm not a ruminant and therefore my body cannot digest the cellulose in the grass. However, there are some plants that look like grass that I do forage, but no, they aren't actually grass.
Salsify is one of those plants that looks so much like grass that for the first 5 years I was foraging regularly, I didn't know how to identify it, especially not at its early stages of growth, the time most ideal for picking it. Now that I do know how to identify it, I see it everywhere and it has transformed into my absolute favorite foraged plant. (Ok, perhaps a slight exaggeration- I also absolutely adore redbud and wild chard and purslane- salsify ties with them.)
Salsify, also known as goatsbeard, Jerusalem star, and oyster plant, is known in Latin as tragopogon. Originating in Europe and Asia, and with a long history of cultivation (it was even mentioned by Pliny the Elder, who died in the Pompeii eruption in ancient Rome!) it now grows wild in most of the world. Even non foragers have often heard of salsify as there is a cultivated variety sold in the grocery store. There are a few different varieties of salsify, each slightly different but with the same general properties, and all edible.
If picked at the right stage, salsify is a yummy root vegetable, but the greens and flower buds can also be eaten, but more on that in a bit.
As a member of the cichorieae or lactuceae tribe (commonly known as the dandelion or chicory family) of the sunflower family (asteraceae) along with dandelion, chicory, wild lettuce, and sow thistle (nlactuceae ot to mention cat's ear and a few others), you would expect this plant to have the hallmark of this family and be bitter, to some degree at least, but surprisingly it isn't. It does have the other notable feature of this tribe, for which it is named lactuceae (from the root lact-, meaning milk, as in lactose and lactation)- a milky white sap (also known as latex) that comes out when the plant is cut.
The reason why I had a really hard time identifying this plant at first is because generally when trying to identify a new plant, I look for the flower and try to identify it using that, and the other features, but the flower is always the best place to start. However, one of salsify's other names, at least of a specific species, is Jack (or Johnny)-go-to-bed-at-noon, because the plant flowers opens in the morning, then closes after a very short while (usually by noon) before turning into a giant seed head. Though I forage salsify regularly now, I've only seen it at its flowering stage twice.
|Image credit Sarah Stierch via Wikimedia Commons|
|Image credit Takkk via Wikimedia Commons|
At the same time as there is the seed puff ball on the plant (usually late spring and summer time in my area), you can find the closed seed heads, which, due to the leaves around the flower (called sepals), look like the gesture locals make, with their hand facing upward and finger tips pressed together, to mean "just a moment". So I jokingly call this plant the "just-a-moment-plant". If you look at the background in the previous picture, you can sort of see the closed seed head, or you can see it better here. (P.S. I know in other cultures that gesture means something offensive, but not locally whatsoever. Apologies if you find this pic offensive!)
|This gesture, locally, means "just a moment"; |
the closed seed heads on salsify remind me of this
The problem with identifying the plant by the seed head is that at that stage, it is less good for eating.
As with all members of the dandelion family, every single part of this plant is edible, meaning non poisonous. However, even when something is officially edible, that doesn't mean it is enjoyable to eat. Salsify tastes delicious at all stages, but the issue is that as it gets older, more and more of the plant gets too tough and fibrous to eat.
The parts that are most enjoyable to eat are the roots when they are still small, picked before salsify sends up its stalk and flower head, when it is in the more ambiguous and looking-like-grass stage, as well as the grass like leaves, which can be picked at any time, and the unopened flower head. The flower head looks like a smaller version of the seed head, only it is softer, and when you pull apart the leaves, you'll see flower petals inside instead of the seeds.
The tougher parts of the plant- more mature roots, stalks, and closed seed heads make an excellent broth (some of the most delicious broths I've ever tasted in my life, just by boiling them in salty water), and if you want to scrape out the softer inside of the woody mature roots, that is delicious as well, but just a lot of work.
In cultivated salsify, the roots are bigger, as big as carrots, or even larger, but wild salsify is much smaller. Their taste reminds me a bit of parsnip, a little bit sweet, and officially they're supposed to taste like oysters, but having never tasted oysters, I can't tell you if the comparison is spot on. All I know is they are absolutely delicious.
Anyone who forages regularly can tell you that the most typical thing a forager finds is various types of greens, and fruit. Non leafy vegetables are harder to come by as a forager, which can cause things to get monotonous in the kitchen, especially if you're predominantly using foraged produce in your diet.
For that reason, when I come across a foraged plant that is a non leafy vegetable, like asparagus or salsify or cactus paddles, I am especially excited, because they are more versatile and offer more cooking options than do greens.
Salsify root is great raw (I don't bother peeling it, since it is so small that peeling would get rid of most of it- I just scrub it very well) or cooked, sliced and diced in salads, sauted up in stir fries, or boiled in soups and stews. Think of it like a carrot and use it any way you'd use that (of course, remembering that it has a different taste).
The leaves taste relatively neutral, slightly sweet and parsnip-like, similar to the root, but less strongly flavored. You can chop them up raw to use in salad, or cook it up as you would any green.
Ok, so now I hopefully convinced you to want to forage this plant, so let me teach you how to identify it even before it reaches the obvious stage, with the flower and/or puff balls... and how to tell it apart from look alikes.
There are poisonous look alikes to this plant (some members of the lily family, such as crocuses and daffodils), but following the instructions on how to tell them apart, you'll be able to find and identify salsify plants and eat it safely.
Be prepared for a barrage of pictures!
Salsify leaves look like grass. At first glance. But once you look a little bit closer, you'll see that they aren't quite grass like. In fact, I'd say that it looks more like a spider plant.
While with grass the leaves often branch out off a central stem when they get bigger, and grow haphazardly in all different directions, without any seeming rhyme or reason, but generally in an upward direction, salsify's thin leaves grow out from a central point, sprawling in all different directions, almost as if the plant is trying to take up as much space as possible, despite its narrow leaves.
|See the fuzz in the center of this salsify plant?|
For the record, there are many varieties of grass, but locally, much of the wild grass matures to be wild oats, barley, or wheat, all in the grass family.
If you look at the center of this picture, between the grass growing all around it, there is a member of the allium family, the onion and garlic family. This is yet another plant that looks grass like at this stage.
|See the fuzz on the grass plant, bottom center? |
An allium in the middle of grass
|Tall allium and shorter grass nearby|
When you look down at where an allium meets the ground, you'll generally see that sheath there, from which all the leaves eventually emerge. The thing to notice in alliums at this stage is their onion or garlic like smell, which grass and salsify do not have. Allium leaves also tend to be rather erect, growing straight upward and not sprawling like salsify or multidirectional like grass, For more info on how to identify alliums, see here.
But I haven't even gotten to the real defining aspect of salsify, the one that makes you know, without a doubt, that it is salsify, the white sap. Because I want you to be able to identify salsify at a glance, without even needing to pick it or dig up anything, even when its growing from the middle of another plant or bush, such as this one growing out of some rosemary...
|Allium and rosemary|
...Or even when it is growing in the middle of lots of grass.
|Quiz time- can you spot the salsify? Lets see how well I taught you.|
Hint- its base is smack in the middle of this picture,
Once you think you've spotted it, walk over and break a tiny part of the leaf. Immediately you should see some milky white sap/latex/juice come out of the cut section. This is proof without a doubt that it is salsify. None of the look alikes, poisonous or not, exude that white sap. Just a note about that latex- it can be quite sticky when it dries, so try not to get too much of it on your skin, or it might be annoying to wash off.
But if you want even more reassurance, dig out the root. The roots of salsify, grass, and alliums are very different from each other.
Grass roots don't have much substance to them at all. They're thin and stringy and barely there.
|Allium and roots, plus grass|
Salsify, on the other hand, has what is called a tap root, one solid root going down into the ground like a carrot, with many tiny little roots branching off the big root. (I have on occasion gotten forked salsify roots.)
If you want the root, and you have no digging tools, you can use your fingers or a stick to remove the dirt around the root, so you can yank the whole thing out quickly. But if you want to go out to forage salsify roots, I suggest bringing a small pocket trowel since that makes it so much easier to dig out the roots.
Once removing the roots from the ground, you'll notice lots of white sap welling up on the root, from where all the tiny roots broke off the main root, yet another confirmation that it is salsify.
I find salsify anywhere and everywhere. Along roads, in parks, in forests, growing between other plants, even growing from cracks in the road or sidewalk (but don't eat those- follow proper safe foraging guidelines). As I walk along, I just try to keep my eye out for "grass that isn't quite grass", and then check it out more closely. Typically once I find one salsify plant, I find many many others right nearby, as the seeds spread via wind. I do plan on transplanting some in my yard, because what would be more awesome than having a yard covered in this?
To see more about salsify's medicinal and nutritional benefits, see here.
Salsify- a truly wonderful foraged plant, and now you, too, can forage it, and how to tell it apart from all the look alikes.
Ever eaten salsify? Store bought or wild? What is your favorite way to prepare it?
Have you ever foraged salsify? If not, do you remember seeing this plant around, either in the seed head or puffball stage? Do you think you've seen salsify at the grass like stage?