The salsify, as it is known with its black skin, is actually a scorzonera, a perennial plant whose root resembles the salsify on the taste plane, the skin of the latter being of ivory color. These two plants belong to the same family (Asteraceae) but have two different botanical genera: the true salsify belongs to the genus Tragopogon Porrifolius and the Scorzonera, said black salsify, to the genus Scorzonera Hispanica. From the sixteenth century, the culture of the Scorzonera supplanted that of the salsify judged less tasty, more fibrous and less productive. So it is the black salsify that is most often found on market stalls and canned.
History of the salsify
The history of these two plants, which originated in southern Europe or the eastern Mediterranean basin, is not well known. The Greeks and Romans knew them, but regarded them as medicinal plants rather than vegetables. It seems that for a long time they were harvested in the wild before appearing late (around the 15th or 16th centuries) in the gardens of southern Europe.
By the end of the sixteenth century, the salsify gradually lost its popularity to the scorzonera, more productive, more tasty, less fibrous and easier to peel. The term “salsify” nevertheless has a hard life since it is still used in many places to designate its black-skinned cousin.
Little agricultural land was spent on the culture of either of these two roots. Gardeners felt they occupy the precious soil of their vegetable garden too long, which could be used better. In addition, they are difficult to harvest. It is necessary to dig the ground deep at the fork spades while being careful not to damage them, and when failing they oxidize quickly. As for the gourmets, they are divided: some hate them, the others like them.
However, with the resurgence of popularity of “forgotten vegetables”, the situation could change, especially if we can select varieties that are better suited to the kind of agriculture which is being practiced today. Especially since the salsify and the scorzonera stand out from other root vegetables by their inulin content. Moreover, they are harvested during the hollow periods, either from November to February in the Mediterranean countries, or early in the spring under the more rigorous climates of the Nordic countries. So they arrive on the market when the other winter vegetables become rarer or begin to wither.
Despite this, the bulk of commercial production is now destined for processing (canning, freezing). The main producing countries are Belgium, the Netherlands, France, Poland and the countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States (former Soviet republics). It is also produced in Chile and India.
Health profile of salsify and scorzonera
Salsify and scorzonera are root vegetables with slightly sweet flavour. The peel of the salsify is white, the skin of the scorzonera is black. Their flesh contains inulin, which would contribute to the health of the intestines and the proper functioning of the immune system.
The benefits of salsify and scorzonera
Cancer. Studies among animals show that inulin, a type of carbohydrate present in the salsify and scorzonera, may have a protective effect against certain cancers, especially those of the intestine and breast. Experimental studies tend to show that inulin would play a role in reducing the risk of colorectal cancer among humans. However, the preventive effects on this type of cancer will need to be demonstrated using forward-looking studies conducted over the longer term.
General health. Salsify is an interesting source of dietary fiber. A fiber-rich diet, in addition to preventing constipation and reducing the risk of colon cancer, can contribute to the prevention of cardiovascular disease, as well as to the control of type 2 diabetes and appetite.
Blood lipids. Inulin, a sugar contained in salsify and scorzonera, could have a beneficial effect on the control of blood lipids (including cholesterol) and positively influence the balance of individuals with hyperlipidemia. However, these studies were not specifically conducted on salsify and scorzonera.
What does salsify and scorzonera contain?
Salsify and scorzonera contain inulin, an undigestible sugar of the fructans family. The salsify contains less inulin (between 4 G and 11 g per 100 g of fresh produce) than other foods such as chicory (40 g/100 g) or Jerusalem (20 g/100 g). But it is still an important source, especially since the North American diet includes very little inulin (2.6 g per 1 000 calories).
Inulin is called a prebiotic, i.e. it is not digested or absorbed by the small intestine, but fermented by the bacterial flora of the large intestine. Thanks to inulin, beneficial intestinal bacteria, such as bifidobacteria, can develop and effectively play their favorable roles in terms of intestinal health, immune system and the absorption of several nutrients. Some studies have also shown a beneficial effect of inulin on the control of blood lipids.
The phytochemical profile of salsify and scorzonera was poorly studied, but would contain substances with an antioxidant potential, including quercetin. One study showed that salsify contained phenolic compounds that would prevent the formation of free radicals. The latter would be involved in the development of cardiovascular diseases, certain cancers and other diseases related to aging. In a context of food diversity, it would be desirable for more research to be directed towards the identification of bioactive molecules of lesser known vegetables, such as salsify and scorzonera.
Salsify is considered to be a source of fiber as it contains more than 2 g per serving of 125 ml (1/2 Cup). Food fibers, which are found only in plants, group together a set of substances that are not digested by the body. It is recommended to consume 25 g of fiber per day for women aged 19 to 50 years, and 38 g per day for men of the same age group.
The leaves of salsify and scorzonera are edible, especially young spring shoots. We know very little about their nutritional value. However, it may be thought they provide several vitamins and minerals, since they are leafy greens, such as spinach and chard.
Isolated cases of insulin allergy have been reported in the scientific literature. Inulin is found in many plants. It’s also found in the form of an ingredient in several processed foods. The food industry uses inulin to replace fats and to provide a creamy texture to different products, including frozen desserts, gravies and fruit preparations. The consumption of salsify and artichoke, naturally containing inulin, was associated with an allergic reaction of the anaphylactic type. This type of reaction is characterized by skin signs (hives, edema …) and severe respiratory disorders. It should be noted the allergy cases listed are very rare. This information can still be useful to people already allergic to artichokes, Jerusalem or chicory, foods rich in inulin.
Choice and conservation
Salsify or scorzonera is not easily found in northern countries grocery stores. They can be found occasionally in grocery stores or markets frequented by Europeans. Choose the roots well firm, rather fine than large. If not, you can find them in canned products.
Refrigerator. The roots packed in a paper towel keep 4 or 5 days.
Freezer. Peel them, blanch them for a few minutes and freeze.
The germ power of salsify and scorzonera seeds is short-lived, it is better to buy new seeds each year or to keep the seeds more than 1 year in the freezer.
Sow in the spring or early summer in a light land, and without pebbles (which fork the root). Make sure they benefit from good sunshine. Space the rows by 25 cm and lighten the seedlings to 10 cm.
Avoid the fresh manure that also makes the root fork. It’s better to apply it the previous fall or use well decomposed compost.
Weed, hoe and water frequently.
If a floral stem is formed, cut it close to the crown.
Harvest the roots late in the fall, after they have had some good frost or very early in the spring of the following year.