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  • Writer's pictureOrion Aon

Identifying and Foraging Yellow Salsify, Tragopogon dubius

Updated: 2 days ago

Yellow salsify, Tragopogon dubius, is generally considered a weed in North America, but it’s an amazing edible plant that deserves a higher status than pesky weed. Some species of salsify are cultivated for their large edible taproots. These cultivated varieties usually go by the name oyster root. However, the root isn’t the only edible part of salsify; the leaves, shoots, buds, flowers, and even seeds, if you want to put in the effort to collect them, are edible! Let’s first dive into what salsify looks like and where it grows. Then we’ll cover what to eat and how to harvest those parts, and we’ll finish with a super simple recipe for sautéed salsify crowns!


Yellow salsify roots collected in early spring.
Yellow salsify roots collected in early spring.

Description


Yellow salsify is an annual or biennial plant, meaning it can have either one or two growing seasons. The plants that exhibit biennial behavior will not flower until the second growing season. These plants start as a low-growing basal rosette and usually become quite large during the next growing season. Salsify usually grows from a single, unbranching taproot, but it can occasionally split into two or three separate taproots.


An example of a forked salsify taproot
An example of a forked salsify taproot

The leaves are long, narrow, and u-shaped in cross-section. The leaves usually have some light fuzz around their bases as well. Their inconspicuous form can often be confused for a cluster of grass until taking a closer look. The leaves can be a couple of inches long to over a foot in length for the largest specimens. As the plant matures, a hollow shoot emerges from the center of the rosette and branches into multiple narrow, tapering flower buds. The entire height of the plant can vary from several inches to a few feet or more in the best growing conditions. The flowers appear similar to dandelions, but the florets are slightly sparse and backed by longer green bracts. The bract length is an important trait for differentiating this species from meadow salsify, Tragopogon pratensis, which has shorter green bracts. Both species are equally edible, but yellow salsify is more common. The flowers close up once ready to go to seed and eventually reopen into large dandelion-like seed heads with many small, parachute-borne seeds that spread through wind dispersal. All parts of salsify bleed a milky white sap when damaged.


The dandelion-like seed head of salsify.
A salsify seed head.

Range & Habitats


Yellow salsify is native to Eurasia but can be found throughout most of the world. It is especially common in the Northern Hemisphere and is widespread in most of the US and Canada, where it was introduced. Yellow salsify prefers moist, shaded soils but, like many weedy plants, will grow in most areas of human disturbance. It can sometimes also be found in meadows and open forests. I usually see it growing in disturbed soils around urban and suburban areas where I live in Colorado. It’s a very common plant to find in yards and gardens!


Yellow salsify growing beneath some urban pine trees.
Yellow salsify growing beneath some urban pine trees.

Potential Look-alikes


The information in the description above should be enough to properly identify yellow salsify. However, look-alike information is something that is regularly requested, so here are some possible species that could be confused with salsify. This list is not comprehensive and may not be relevant to your region. Remember only to eat wild foods once you're 100% confident in your identification.


  • Before flowering, death camas, Toxicoscordion venenosum, leaves can look similar but they lack white sap, grow from a bulb, and tend to grow in different habitats. This plant is highly toxic.

  • Before flowering, some grass species that grow in small clusters could be mistaken but lack white sap. Most grass species are inedible but otherwise harmless.

  • Other similar species in the Cichorieae tribe of plants such as Scorzonera. Many are edible.

  • Before flowering, wild onion, Allium species, leaves could look similar but lack the white sap, grow from bulbs, and smell like onions. These are edible as well.

  • Other species of Tragopogon, especially T. pratensis, which are all equally edible.

 

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Edibility & Harvesting


The entirety of yellow salsify is edible! The roots are best from young plants in the early spring or late fall. They are mild in flavor and best cooked but can also be eaten raw. Once the plants start putting energy into leaf and flower production, the roots can toughen. Salsify is cultivated for its edible root, which is also an option if you have garden space with loose, rich soil. Cultivated roots will be larger and more tender than their wild counterparts. To harvest the roots, use a small trowel or narrow spade to loosen the soil around the plant, grasp the crown of the plant where the leaves meet the roots, and carefully pull while prying up with your digging tool. Large, biennial salsify plants can have roots over a foot long in good soil conditions.


The edible roots of yellow salsify.
The edible roots of yellow salsify.

The leaves are edible raw, but cooking them really brings out the flavor and texture, in my opinion. The narrow tips become crispy and offer a nice texture variation from the thicker bases. If I’m digging up roots, I like to spray off the entire plant while gently scrubbing the roots clean. Pay particular attention to the base of the leaves where they are close to the ground; this area can pick up dirt and should be washed well. Once clean, I like to cut the root right where it meets the leaves. This gives you a clean root, crown, and leaves, ready to eat or be cooked. You could also leave the plant whole and cook the root with the leaves attached; just be careful not to burn the thin leaf tips, as they will cook more quickly than the root. You can also harvest just the leaves by snipping them from the plant.


The leaves and crowns of yellow salsify.
Salsify crowns and leaves.

Later in the growing season, salsify will send up a hollow flower stalk. These shoots are a wonderful vegetable when harvested at the correct time. To collect salsify shoots, look for plants that haven’t started branching and are without any open flowers. Snip or pinch off the shoot where it feels tender. Treat these like asparagus or any other shoot vegetable, or eat them raw. Once the plants begin branching and producing multiple flower buds, I start collecting those instead. Salsify flowers generally open in the morning and close back up in the evening, and it can be difficult to distinguish the tender flower buds from the ones that have started setting seeds.


Salsify buds in various stages of growth.
Salsify buds in various stages of growth.

One little trick is to look for whispy fibers that emerge from the tip of the bud; these give salsify one of its other common names, goatsbeard, and indicate a bud that is ready to open into a seed head. Another trick is to peel back the bracts to see if florets or seeds are underneath. Leave behind any that have seeds. Only the first bud would be good to eat in the photos below. The other two have started setting seeds.



The flower buds are good raw or cooked, and, like the leaves, the tips become crispy and delicious when lightly cooked in some fat. The open flowers are also edible and make a pretty garnish for wild salads or can be made into fritters like dandelion flowers. The seeds can also be eaten as a grain, but they are small and labor-intensive to collect.


The open flower of a yellow salsify.
Yellow salsify flower.

Foraging Calendar


To learn more about the best seasons to harvest this species and many others, check out my Foraging Calendar & Wild Food Database! You can try out the demo version to learn more, and join my Patreon to gain full access to the Foraging Calendar and other exclusive perks!




Sauteed Salsify Crowns Recipe


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2 Comments


wielandmuell
6 days ago

I just harvested some salsify in Montana, but the root is bitter. Anyone ever experienced that? When i skinned them they were less bitter but still a bit of bitterness there.

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Orion Aon
Orion Aon
6 days ago
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Yes, I have had some that were more bitter than others. Cooking usually helps with those more bitter tasting salsify roots.

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