One damp morning recently, I was casually browsing The GARDNER’S KALENDAR.
Part of the Appendix to John Reid’s fascinating book, The SCOTS GARD’NER, first published in Edinburgh in 1685. And there, under November, I came across a word which I have not met for many a long year – for so long, indeed, that its meaning escaped me. Skirrets. The context in which I encountered ‘skirrets’ was: “Garden Dishes and drinks in season. Cabbage, Cole-flower, Onions, Leeks, Shallots etc., Blanched Sellery, Succory, Pickled Asparagus, Purslain etc., Fresh Parsneeps, Skirrets, Potatoes, Carrots, Parsneeps, Beet-raye, Scorzenera, parsly and fennell roots.” (I have kept the original spellings and capital letters; and, I might add, there are other unfamiliar vegetables in John Reid’s list to which I may well turn my attention on some future occasion.)
But let’s look at skirret or skirrets, for the plural is sometimes preferred; and let’s start with a definition of this largely forgotten vegetable. “Sium sisarum,” (the plant’s pukka botanical name) “commonly known as skirret, is a perennial plant of the family Apiaceae sometimes grown as a root vegetable. The English name skirret is derived from the Middle English ‘skirwhit’ or ‘skirwort’, meaning ‘white root’. In Scotland it is known as crummock. Its Danish name sukkerrod, Dutch name suikerwortel and German name “Zuckerwurzel” translate as ‘sugar root’,” to quote Wikipedia. Skirret boasts a cluster of white, rather sweet roots, each somewhere around 15-20 cm … say, 6-8 inches in old money … long, which are the parts of the plant usually eaten. Skirret is in leaf during the winter months, carries flowers in July, and has seed which ripen in September. Pollinated by insects, the plant is hermaphroditic, carrying both male and female flowers.
Skirret’s origins remain obscure. It may well be native to China and has certainly been known in Europe for millennia, for Sium is its ancient Greek name. It grows happily in sandy and in loamy soils, doesn’t much mind whether they are acid, neutral or alkaline and will grow in full sun or semi-shade provided the soil is moist. It does need a cultivated bed if it is to thrive and, while it has been recorded in the wild in both the United Kingdom and the United States, such instances seem to be rare and isolated and skirret shows no tendency to colonise either country, garden escapees dying out soon after they have made their escape.
An American website, Plants for a Future, tells me that, “The roots have a very acceptable taste raw, that is somewhat like a cross between carrots and parsnip but with a nutty flavour. They can also be boiled, baked or added to soups etc. The roasted root has been used as a coffee substitute.” And I learn from the internet that the twelfth-century Benedictine abbess Hildegard von Binge discussed the medicinal properties of skirret in her work Physica: but I also read that skirret is considered neither helpful nor harmful medicinally, eaten in moderation. Rather curiously, there is a suggestion that anyone with dry facial skin which splits easily might pound skirret in a mortar and add oil, rubbing this ointment into the face prior to retiring for the night and continuing this treatment until the skin is healed. As ever, I simply report this matter and categorically am not endorsing the supposed remedial effects any more than I am suggesting that anyone should try it.
So why did skirret largely disappear from the gardeners’ world? The answer seems to be carrots, which have grown ever more popular as skirret’s popularity has declined since the eighteenth century. But the curious gardener can still buy skirret seed to explore its potential.