I now have enough Western Salsify naturalized in my New Mexico food forest that I can harvest and eat it without concern for depleting it as a food source. Please note that the USA considers this guy an invasive species, and it has spread over most of the US, excluding the deep Southeast. I disagree, mainly because this was a valued food plant that escaped cultivation and if we remember that and start eating it… problem solved. Herbicides unnecessary. As you can imagine, if you eat something, it does not get out of hand.
Because Western Salsify is a biennial like cabbage, to get seed for future generations some have to be left in place to bloom and set seed. This specimen shows the bloom which is reminiscent of a dandelion, its cousin. Some Western Salsify are annuals, not a trait I am encouraging. One showed up next to my back door and immediately set bloom. I dug it up to keep it from passing that on. Most of the benefits of Western Salsify as a food source and nutrient accumulator are less in the annual form.
Western Salsify roots are known as a winter food source, the roots sweeten and taste better after first frost. Like most roots, as the top goes dormant in winter, the nutrients in the top structure are withdrawn and stored in the roots. Both taste and nutrition improve after this process. The roots can be left in the ground and harvested all winter if you don’t have long freezes; if you do, better to dig them and store in a root cellar or other cool area like carrots. Too hard to dig in frozen ground. I like the roots in soups, they add a complex flavor. They are good raw, and I like them grated into a slaw and sometimes add them to grated carrots if I don’t have much. I only harvest and eat the roots after the tops die back, and in Texas, I left the roots in the ground all winter. Anything that didn’t get eaten, came up to bloom and reproduce in spring. Before die back, it is a good idea to mark any plants you want to save for seed.
The most delicious use of Western Salsify is in early spring as they come up to reproduce. The flowering shoots are an early treat, and eaten like asparagus shoots with a similar flavor. Now that I have early shoots, I can use mine in a quick stir fry served over rice. That will be dinner tonight, yum. I never take all the flowering shoots, but some of the plants have a lot of flowers… and those are the ones I want to select for reproduction in my food forest. Not to say I haven’t dug up a beautiful root, repented, and replanted it for reproduction.
The flowers are also edible raw in salads. I suspect you could make wine from them, as you do with Dandelion flowers. Now that I have so much room, I might give it a try next year. I admit I haven’t heard of it, but as an experiment… I’m game.
If you can catch the achenes (seeds) before they fly away on the slightest breeze… they make nice winter sprouts. For the last two years, I have caught as many as I could to ensure they drop on my garden instead of flying away to some yard where they are unappreciated. Luckily, my prevailing winds blow them uphill and I have more up there. Although the puffy seed heads look like Dandelions, they are bigger, as are the seeds.
Western Salsify is a nutrient dense food high in B vitamins, vitamin C, and minerals. Like many “weeds” that colonize disturbed soil, it is a nutrient accumulator that repairs depleted topsoil.
One of the minerals Western Salsify will make available is manganese, which is necessary for proper functioning of our metabolic and antioxidant systems. Absence of manganese causes Parkinson-like symptoms.
Another mineral Western Salsify provides from the subsoil is Phosphorus, an essential macromineral needed in large quantities by all life. Phosphorus is the limiting factor for life in many ecosystem and as plants remove it from the soil, it is depleted and must be replaced. Organic farming naturally replaces phosphorus, as does polyculture and using compost. Commercial farmers replace phosphorus and some missing nutrients with fertilizers; inadequate as that is, the annual demand for fertilizer to replace depleted phosphorus is growing 2 times faster than human population growth. As modern farming practices continue to degrade the soil, vast areas in the US are going out of production. At some point, restoring “weeds” like Western Salsify repair the soil, but it can take more years than the soil was productive. In part, that is because the soil cannot produce the volume of biomass needed for quick regeneration. If you allow nutrient accumulators and stop killing them with herbicides like Roundup, your soil will be healthier and food plants need the nutrition.
My food forest is on relatively new soil and that sort of deep, nutrient dense soil has not yet formed, a common issue for Rocky Mountain gardeners. I have imported biomass from Albuquerque’s suburbs, as well as distributed endless wildflower seeds. Anything that grows becomes biomass for my soil, and all is worked back into the soil for enrichment, first as mulch, which breaks down into compost. As you can see from most of my photos, rather than cutting old plants, I flatten them to the ground. Larger plants are usually removed and have been buried in my hugelkultur beds. I have seen incredible soil (sand) improvement in 3 years.
As much as I appreciate Western Salsify as a tasty and nutritious food, I also know that its value as a nutrient accumulator for other plants is likely its highest and best use in my food forest. It’s all good.