Sandy’s Garden .. Scorzonera

Sandy Simpson
Sandy Simpson

I have, on occasion, referred to The Scots Gard’ner by John Reid, one of the most successful garden designers of his day.

He completed his book in 1683 and left it with the printers in Edinburgh before he set sail for the New World and embarked on another successful life in what we know as New Jersey. A reprint of this book was published by the Governors of the Library of Innerpeffray in 2015, Innerpeffray being a hamlet in Perth and Kinross, 4 miles southeast of Crieff and the location of the oldest free lending library in Scotland. Innerpeffray is close to Drummond Castle, the gardens of which were designed by the self-same John Reid, who included in his Gard’ners Kalendar for autumn at the back of his book this list of: “Garden Dishes and drinck in season: varieties of Pot-herbes and Sallades, Cabbage, Cole-flower, Peas, Beans and Kidnees, Artichoks, Beet-card, Beet-rave, Scorzonera, Carrots, Turneeps … ” and a number more. Scorzonera? What on earth is that?

Scorzonera, it turns out, is a root vegetable belonging to the dandelion family. The edible root looks like a long, thin parsnip which can be prepared in much the same way as many a root vegetable by being scrubbed under cold running water, peeled, cut into pieces and boiled before being mashed and used in soups and stews. It can also be served in a white sauce as a vegetable accompaniment; and the boiled roots can be coated with batter and deep fried. Once commonly known variously as black oyster plant … its taste is said to be reminiscent of oysters … serpent root, viper’s herb and viper’s grass, scorzonera is a perennial plant that is native to southern Europe and the Near East, to both of which areas it may have spread from Spain many aeons ago. Strictly, I should call it ‘black scorzonera’ for there is also ‘white scorzonera’, but Reid was almost certainly writing of the black variety, so-called because of the colour of its metre-long roots - say about a yard in old money. Its botanical name is Scorzonera hispanica, ‘hispanica’ being a reference to its native home. I learn from Wikipedia that the first mention of the vegetable by a Western writer came from Leonhard Rudolf, who reported seeing scorzonera at the market of Aleppo in Syria, in 1575. Although it is often said that the name of the genus Scorzonera comes from the Old French word scorzon, meaning ‘adder’ or ‘viper’, the name is more likely to have been derived from the Italian scorza negra meaning ‘black bark’ or ’black peel’ from the colour of the roots skin.

Scorzonera was believed to help in treating snake bites, almost certainly on account of the probably-wrong derivation of its name. It was also thought to be an effective treatment for bubonic plague, that horrendous and far-from rare condition found throughout Europe in medieval times whose symptoms included fever, chills, weakness, abdominal pain and tissue death, especially of the fingers and toes. These dying tissues often turned black, giving rise to the dreaded name ‘the Black Death’.

There is not, so far as I know, any foundation for the supposed medicinal properties of scorzonera: but it is a source of the trace elements potassium, calcium, phosphorus, iron and sodium, as well as vitamins A, B1, E and C. Scorzonera … or ‘salsify’ as it is more often called nowadays … is still grown in parts of Europe such as France, Belgium and the Netherlands: but is sufficiently rarely grown in the United Kingdom that it merits inclusion in The Ark of Taste, a key international project of the Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity which aims to catalogue and promote quality products from around the world that are rooted in culture, history and tradition and are in danger of disappearing. John Reid might be surprised at that, but pleased that he might find scorzonera growing in New Jersey today.