Know your Scorzonera

Know your Scorzonera - Introduction

  • Scorzonera hispanica, black salsify or Spanish salsify, also known as black oyster plant, serpent root, viper's herb, viper's grass or simply Scorzonera, is a perennial member of the sunflower family (Asteraceae), 

  • It is cultivated as a root vegetable in the same way as some of the members of the salsify genus Tragopogon, to which it is closely related.

  • Often known as Black Salsify (Scorzonera and Salsify are closely related), this really is an interesting vegetable which should be better known and more widely grown - as it is on the Continent of Europe, where it is treated as a gourmet vegetable, as they appreciate and enjoy its unique oyster like flavour. 

Know your Scorzonera - Botany

  • The black salsify plant has heads of yellow ray flowers. 

  • The thin black taproot grows up to one metre (3'3") long and up to 2cm (1") in diameter. 

  • It has a black skin with white internal flesh.

Know your Scorzonera - Origins

  • The black salsify is native to Southern Europe and the Near East

  • It is generally thought to have spread to the rest of Europe from Spain.

  • The name of the genus Scorzonera probably derives from the Old French word scorzon, meaning snake

  • The Celtic and Germanic peoples are believed to have eaten the black salsify, which was considered efficacious against the bubonic plague and snake bites until the 16th century. 

  • The plant was being cultivated as a vegetable in Italy and France by 1660, and soon after, the Belgians were growing vast fields of it.

Know your Scorzonera - Culinary Use

  • Scorzonera is an interesting vegetable that is a member of the Daisy family. It is easy to grow, untroubled by pests and will stand in the ground over the Winter to be pulled for the table as and when required.

  • This fairly recent variety has the added benefit that it is all but resistant to bolting and heavy yielding.

  • A real delicacy with a truly delicate flavour. Ready for use from early November, either lifted direct or stored in sand throughout the winter. 

  • The outer black skin should be scraped off and roots cooked in similar way to Parsnips.

Know your Scorzonera - Nutrition

  • The black salsify is considered nutritious: it contains proteins, fats, asparagine, choline, laevulin, as well as minerals such as potassium, calcium, phosphorus, iron, sodium, and vitamins A, B1, E and C. 

  • Since it also contains the glycoside inulin, which mainly consists of fructose, it is particularly suitable for diabetics.

Know your Scorzonera - Distribution

  • Black salsify is hitherto mainly a European crop. 

  • Belgium, France and the Netherlands are the world's largest producers of black salsify; significant amounts are also produced in Germany. 

  • In the latter country, 'Hoffmanns schwarzer Pfahl' is a cultivar widely used by commercial growers, while 'Duplex' is popular among small-scale gardeners. 

  • Some other cultivars are alre widely available, but because it was rather a localized crop before being produced for a wider market there are comparatively few landraces.

  • Harvesting is somewhat complicated, as the roots are quite fragile, and broken material loses freshness. 

  • Entire roots will keep fresh all winter if stored in a cool dark place, due to their robust black corky skin. 

  • In root cellars they may keep fresh well into springtime. 

  • It is, however, very hardy and will grow well in most cool-temperate climates and usually yield 15-20 metric tons of roots per hectare. 

  • In British gardens it is common to profit from its perennial character by leaving it in the ground until its roots have grown to sufficient size for harvesting; this can take two years. 

  • Commercially, it can be grown best as the year's second crop of a field.