Distinctive, Often-Overlooked Veggies
When I come across an unfamiliar word in my reading, I’m immediately curious about its meaning, so I promptly search for a definition to better understand it. I might also incorporate that new word into my own lexicon. Similarly, when I encounter an unusual plant, I’m eager to investigate. I want to learn more about its background, uses, and methods of propagation. Of course, that process opens the door for possible newcomers into my own garden. That’s the beauty of discovery!
This article is an introduction to a pair of relatively obscure vegetables that could become conversation starters among fellow gardeners. These distinctive fresh edibles offer nutritional rewards, as well as novel appeal. Let’s find out about them.
The name kohlrabi (Brassica oleracea var. gongylodes) comes from a combination of two German words: kohl, which means cabbage, and rapa, which means turnip. Kohlrabi originated in northwestern Germany, but did not become part of the American diet until the early 1800s. For those who have never seen this vegetable, the stem of a kohlrabi plant is swollen at the bottom with thick, waxy leaves that grow upward from the round bulb at its base. The plant can reach a height of 45 – 50 cm (16 – 20 in). Kohlrabi cultivars may be green, white, or purple. At first glance, you might say, “This odd-looking relative of the cabbage family resembles an alien creature masquerading as an edible crop.” Thomas Jefferson grew this vegetable in his garden at Monticello, calling it turnip cabbage. He discovered that kohlrabi was a hardy crop and mainly used it as food for his livestock.
Kohlrabi plants prefer well-drained soil with plenty of organic matter and neutral pH (6.0 – 7.5). They thrive in cooler temperatures and are most productive in the spring or fall. Warmer temperatures can lead to rapid growth rates that may result in tall, spindly plants with low crop yields. Kohlrabi seeds can be sown outdoors in the spring after the last frost date, or 11 weeks in advance of the first frost in the fall. Seeds should be planted at a depth of 1 cm (½ in) and about 10 cm (4 in) apart. They take approximately 60 days to reach maturity.
This plant has a shallow root system and needs consistently moist soil to produce crisp, slightly sweet kohlrabi. One inch of water per week is ideal. Mulching will help the plant retain moisture, as well as controlling unwanted weeds. If plants receive insufficient water, the kohlrabi crop can be tough and bitter. These above-ground bulbs should be picked when they are 6 – 7 cm (2 – 2 ½ in) in diameter. After harvesting, kohlrabi should be kept in cool storage until you are ready to eat them.
Kohlrabi plants are subject to some diseases, such as downy mildew and bacterial rot, but these are generally not a huge problem. Insect pests that can create trouble for kohlrabi are aphids, flea beetles, cabbage worms, cabbage loopers, and cutworms. Young seedlings are the most vulnerable.
By now you are probably wondering what you might do with this peculiar vegetable. To keep it simple, just chop or slice it up and add to your favorite fresh salads. Alternatively, you can roast kohlrabi and add it to pasta or rice dishes. This vegetable has the crispy consistency of an apple, but its unique taste is akin to turnips, broccoli, and cabbage, with a hint of nutty flavors. One recipe suggestion you might want to try is kohlrabi slaw.
It’s worth noting the health benefits of this strange-looking veggie. Fresh kohlrabi is rich in vitamin C, an antioxidant that fights disease and combats free radicals, which are associated with cancer. Similar to other members of the Brassica family, kohlrabi contains phytochemicals, which provide some protection against colon and prostate cancer. Not surprisingly, kohlrabi is also a great source of dietary fiber. Sounds like it’s worth a try for culinary experiments in our kitchens!
The word salsify might conjure up colorful images of rhythmic dancers or Mexican salsa, but it’s actually the name of an edible plant. Salsify, sometimes called a vegetable oyster, is part of the Asteraceae family. Several varieties grow in the United States. White salsify (Tragopogon porrifolius), often referred to as goat’s beard, oyster plant, or purple salsify, is the true salsify. It has a long, tan, tapered taproot covered with hairy fibers. Its relative, black salsify (Scozonera), frequently called black oyster, viper’s grass, or serpent root, is considered tastier and less fibrous than the white variety. This plant has a long, thin, dark, oblong root with smoother skin. Salsify plants measure up to 90 cm (3 ft) tall, and as they grow upward, their leaves tend to spread out horizontally. Salsify’s narrow roots are generally 20 – 25 cm (8 – 10 in) long with a diameter of 2 cm (¾ in). Both the roots and greens of the plant are edible.
Although unfamiliar to many people today, salsify was once a popular root vegetable. White salsify is an eastern Mediterranean native and was a favorite in ancient Greece and Rome. Colonists brought this plant to North America in the 1700s, and settlers in New England and the North Atlantic region appreciated its hardiness and resilience. Black salsify was first grown in Spain and then expanded into many areas of Europe and Asia. You will still find it on the dinner table in Belgium, France, Italy, and England. Thomas Jefferson grew both varieties of salsify in his garden, and they are cultivated at Monticello today.
The process of growing salsify is similar to that of carrots and parsnips. Plants grow best in light, well-drained soil that does not retain too much moisture. If your area has dense clay soil, consider adding some sand and compost to loosen it up before planting salsify. Soil pH of 6 – 7 is acceptable for success with salsify. Early spring or fall are optimal times for starting seeds outdoors because they prefer cooler weather. Seeds should be planted at a depth of 1½ cm (½ in), with 10 – 12 seeds every 30 cm (1 ft). They should be thinned when seedlings are 5 cm (2 in) tall, so that each plant in a row has at least 8 cm (3 in) of space. Rows of salsify plants should be approximately 60 cm (2 ft) apart to allow for wide lateral spread of the leaves.
Salsify is a slow-growing plant that thrives in loose soil without weeds, which compete for water and nutrition. It takes 100 – 120 days for the root crops to reach maturity. Salsify is cold-hardy, and both varieties of salsify can withstand a hard freeze. In fact, a frost tends to improve their flavor. Gardeners can rejoice to hear that salsify is resistant to most common horticultural diseases, and garden pests don’t seem to bother the “vegetable oyster” at all. Salsify is classified as a biennial plant, so only the vegetative parts will develop in the first year of cultivation.
When you harvest salsify, cut the leaves off just above the roots. The leaves can be eaten raw or cooked like other fresh greens. Place the roots in cool storage until you are ready to prepare them. Wash the roots, scrape (or remove) the tough outer peel, and place the flesh into a solution of water and vinegar or lemon juice to retain its white color. You can steam or pureé salsify and then add it into soups and stews. Or, simply slice the roots and sauteé the pieces in butter with salt and pepper for a flavorful side dish. See for yourself if you can detect the subtle oyster flavor. Or perhaps you will notice an artichoke taste when you dig in.
In terms of nutritional value, salsify is a superfood. Like a banana, salsify is rich in potassium, so it’s good for your muscles and bones. Salsify is also an excellent source of dietary fiber. The flesh of this root crop contains inulin, a form of natural insulin and a prebiotic that appears to provide some protection against cancer.
Now that you’ve met these often-overlooked vegetables, I hope you will want to try kohlrabi and salsify or even plant them in your own garden. For those who want to sample them, a digital or in-person search at local grocery stores should yield some results for these distinctive newbies to your upcoming meals. For enthusiastic growers, an online search will help you locate reliable sources of these seeds. For salsify, you can visit Monticello’s online store to look for heirloom seed packets.
Special thanks to Patricia Brodowski, lead vegetable gardener at Monticello, for her expertise and support of information in this article.
The Random House Book of Vegetables ( Roger Phillips & Martyn Rix, 1994) (covers more than 650 types of vegetables from around the world, all of which can be grown in the U.S.; provides descriptions of vegetables, cultivation tips, and where to get seeds).
Unusual Vegetables: Something New for this Year’s Garden (Ann Halpin, Rodale Press, 1978) (includes pictures and descriptions of uncommon vegetables to try in your own garden)
Resources for Kohlrabi
“Cole Crops or Brassicas,” Va. Coop. Ext. Pub. No. 426-403, Va.Coop.Ext. Pub. 426-403
“Kohlrabi,” Plant Village.Penn State Univ.
“Growing Kohlrabi in Home Gardens,” Univ. of Minn. Extension.
“Kohlrabi,” Cornell Univ. Coop.Extension
“Brassica oleracea (Gongylodes Group),” North Carolina State Univ. Extension Gardener/ Plant Toolbox
“Brassica oleracea (Gongylodes Group),” Missouri Botanical Garden PlantFinder
“Ten Surprising Benefits of Kohlrabi,” https://www.organicfacts.net/health-benefits/vegetable/health-benefits-of-kohlrabi.html
Kohlrabi Slaw Recipe, Univ. of Delaware Coop. Extension/nutrition
Resources for Salsify
Salsify Plant Profile: Tragopogon porrifolius, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service
“Salsify,” Home Gardening Series, University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources
“How to Grow Salsify,” Guide to Growing Salsify from Allotment and Gardens
“Salsify, the Forgotten Colonial Vegetable,” Illinois Newspaper Project, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaigne
“Salsify: The Superfood You Haven’t Heard of Yet,” One Green Planet Foods and Recipes
“What is Salsify?” allrecipes.com (how to prepare salsify, plus links to recipes)