Dear Readers, as you know we have recently been allowed back into St Pancras and Islington cemetery at weekends, and so I am making the most of it with a nice long walk, usually going right up to the perimeter fence which is next to the North Circular Road. Once you realise that you can orientate yourself by the roar of traffic, you are much less likely to get lost, but I usually hurry along this bit, head down, until I can walk away into the quieter parts. However, on Saturday I was stopped in my tracks by this showy purple flower with bright yellow pollen. It was a rather odd plant, with a bulbous stem and very pointy petals. My husband took the pictures on his phone, as I had decided to leave my camera behind for once. I thought it looked a bit like an osteospurmum and thought no more about it. But then, I looked at the photos again and realised that something wasn’t quite right, so off I went to my Facebook Plant Identification UK group, and back they came with a most unexpected answer – salsify.
If you think this sounds rather familiar, it’s because salsify was a vegetable much loved by the Victorians, and which is now making a comeback. The roots and shoots can be eaten after they’re boiled, and are said to taste rather like seafood (hence the alternate name ‘oyster plant’). Cultivated varieties have a much better shaped and larger root than the wild plant, as you might expect (anyone who has ever dug up a wild carrot in the hope of a big juicy orange vegetable will know what a disappointment is in store in terms of size, though the taste of the wild plant is often much more intense than the cultivated variety). The Great British Chefs website has all manner of tasty suggestions, with Richard Corrigan’s Turbot with Mussels recipe aiming to capitalise on the shellfish flavour of the root. For the vegans among us, roasted salsify with toasted walnuts and a lemon tahini dressing sounds delicious.
Salsify is a member of the daisy family, but its genus puts it amongst the goatsbeards. It was originally native to North Africa and southeastern Europe, but it has been introduced right across the rest of Europe (including the UK), and is present in North American and Australasia. Sometimes it was introduced as an edible plant, but it was also a garden plant that came in and out of favour. It was first recorded in the UK in 1597, and has been known to crossbreed with our native goatsbeard, Tragopogon pratensis or meadow salsify.
You might think that this plant looks nothing like ‘our’ plant, but have a look at the bud. It’s nearly identical. In both salsifies, the bud closes up once the sun has passed, which is probably why I’d never noticed it before – our native salsify is also known as ‘Jack-go-to-bed-at-noon’ for this very reason.
The hybrid of the two species is known as Tragopogon x mirabilis, and you can read about it here. The ‘child’ seems to have characteristics of both ‘parents’. In North America the situation is even more confused, as ‘our’ salsify and meadow salsify were both introduced, and crossed with the native salsify, Tragopogon dubius. Truly the sex-life of plants is a wonder.
Medicinally, it seems that salsify has been used to ‘thin the bile’, and also (in East Anglia) as a treatment for jaundice. Like many members of the daisy family, salsify has a white latex-like sap, which was used as chewing gum by some Native Americans. And, according to this article from the Independent, one pronounces it as ‘sals-i-fee’ not ‘sals-i-fye’, so there. Don’t say I never save you from social embarrassment.
Yet another alternative name for salsify is ‘star of Bethlehem’. I can see why.
And finally, a poem. Mona Arshi was born to Punjab Sikh parents in West London, and is a poet and human rights lawyer. She won the Magma Poetry Competition in 2008 and the Forward Prize in 2015. I find this poem most intriguing, with its domestic detail and lurches into the surreal. What is actually going on here? One dramatic image follows another. See what you think.
Darling, I know you’ve had a bad day in the office
and you need some comfort
but I burned the breakfast again this morning
and the triplets need constant feeding –
they are like little fires. And the rabbit ….
the rabbit topped himself but not before
eating the babies and the mother stared at me
as if I was the one who did it!
Everywhere there is the stink of babies and it’s a good job
I can’t smell my fingers as they’ve been wrapped
in those marigolds for weeks.
The mother-in-law has been. She didn’t stay,
just placed a tulsi plant on the doorstop,
with a nose saying she had high hopes of it
warding off those poisonous insects.
That estate agent arrived for the purposes of the valuation.
He dandled the babies on his lap and placed his index finger
on my bottom lip. There’s some paperwork somewhere.
As for dinner, well that’s ruined. Those chillies you sent for
from Manipur? The juice from the curry bored a hole
in the kitchen tiles and I’ve had to move the pot to the stump
at the bottom of the garden, next to the dock-leaves;
it was a short trip but it was good to get some air.
We need to keep reminding ourselves that when it rains
it is not catastrophic it is just raining.
The lady radio anouncer has addressed me on several occasions,
– did you know orangutans are running out of habitat
and we don’t have much time?
I’ve become quite adept at handling the eccentric oranges,
those root vegetables need sweating out . . . but it’s difficult
to concentrate when that sodding bunny blames me
though how could I have done it when all morning
I’ve been next to the stove stirring the damn pot.
The salsify is eye-balling me, it’s lying on top
of that magazine article – Bored with the same old winter veg?
Give salsify a go. We promise you’ll never look back.
The poet’s website is here. Well worth a look.
Photo Two by CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=196810
Photo Three by CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=424886
Photo Five by By Roger Culos – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=86154437