This spring Rustik is featuring excerpts from Niki Jabbour’s new book, Groundbreaking Food Gardens, a collection of plans for novel and inspiring food gardens from her favorite superstar gardeners. The senior horticultural editor of Canadian Gardening magazine, Stephen Westcott-Gratton, shares some of history’s unique vegetables with his ‘Elizabethan Garden.’
Stephen Westcott-Gratton likes to explore the historical and often curious side of garden edibles. He began growing traditional vegetables, but when family and friends started giving him their seasonal glut, his interest “turned to more obscure offerings, primarily vegetables that had been mainstream in the past but are now all but forgotten,” he says. “It started as curiosity, but blossomed into true love and a vastly extended palate.”
Vegetables like rampion, scorzonera, salsify, or skirret were all cultivated in Elizabethan England, introduced by gardeners from the Continent – principally from France and Italy. “They are still grown there in greater numbers than they ever have been in North America,” he says. “Cardoon is known as cardoni in Italy and is still a popular vegetable, and you can buy canned salsify everywhere in the Netherlands!”
As to why these edibles fell out of favour, Westcott-Gratton points to the fact that some, such as cardoon, are prickly and take up a lot of space. Others, such as skirret, don’t look all that inviting. “The thin, branched roots are wrinkled and don’t look terrifically appetizing at first glance,” says Westcott-Gratton, adding that we shouldn’t be so quick to judge, as they actually have firm, aromatically sweet flesh.
Like most edibles, he says these unique vegetables will grow best in a sunny location with rich, well-drained soil. He recommends including a path between garden beds that is wide enough to allow easy access for a wheelbarrow, and he suggests having a birdbath because birds keep undesirable insects at bay.
These vegetables are worth growing even if you don’t plan to harvest heavily from your plot, as they are also very ornamental in appearance. “All five vegetables also sport lovely flowers if you forget to harvest them,” he laughs. For additional colour, edge the garden with ‘Gem’ series Signet marigolds, whose flowers are edible. “Their citrusy flavor partners well with these neglected old vegetables,” he says.
Westcott-Gratton’s Elizabethan Favorites
This unusual edible is deeply rooted in the fairy tale Rapunzel. When Rapunzel’s mother was pregnant, she was overtaken by a craving for the lush rampion (Campanula rapunculus) plants growing so enticingly in the witch’s garden next door. The witch caught her picking the plant and, as punishment, demanded her first-born baby, so Rapunzel was handed over after her birth.
In the kitchen, rampion was, and still is, prized for its sweet, turnip-like roots that can be eaten raw when young, or boiled until tender when mature. Westcott-Gratton advocates blanching the shoots and eating them like asparagus. The leaves can also be enjoyed as a salad green from spring through autumn, or cooked like spinach. If allowed to flower, the small blue blooms are rather graceful.
As rampion is a biennial, the root will be diminished in size if plants are allowed to bloom. Sow seed directly in the garden in mid-spring, eventually thinning to 12 inches (30 cm) on center.
Commonly called vegetable oyster, salsify (Tragopogon porrifolius) is an ancient root vegetable that was foraged by the Greeks and Romans. Eventually it became a cultivated crop grown for its bumpy, beige parsnip-like roots.
The roots should be eaten soon after harvest, as quality and flavour fade quickly. “Salsify can be baked, made into a delicious cream soup, or steamed and served with a mustard-cheese sauce,” Westcott-Gratton advises.
The foliage is very grassy, so it can easily be mistaken for a weed when young. If allowed to overwinter, this biennial plant produces pretty purple flowers in the second summer, eventually producing seeds. “Songbirds go crazy for the seed heads of salsify!” says Westcott-Gratton. The roots will grow about 8 to 10 inches (20-25 cm) long and 1 inch (2.5 cm) in diameter. Like most root crops, it is best grown directly from seed that is planted in early spring. Thin to 12 inches (30 cm) on center once the seedlings are growing well.
Because of their similar growth habits, scorzonera (Scorzonera hispanica) is often grown alongside salsify. It, too, is a root crop with grassy foliage but its long, slender roots have dark brownish charcoal skin. If allowed to flower in its second year, scorzonera will produce bright yellow blossoms.
The roots have a stronger oyster taste than salsify. “Cooked scorzonera is fantastic with salt, pepper, and butter,” says Westcott-Gratton, who recommends leaving the black skin on the roots. “Or serve it cool with a hearty vinaigrette dressing.”
For a late-season harvest, the plants can be mulched with shredded leaves or straw and the 8- to 12-inch-long (20-30 cm) roots dug into winter. Direct-seed in early spring, thinning to 12 inches (30 cm) on center.
Like scorzonera and salsify, skirret (Sium sisarum) is an ancient root vegetable beloved in ancient Rome and throughout Europe (although it’s thought to hail from China). But unlike those vegetables, the roots of skirret are not single taproots but clusters that resemble chubby gray fingers. The perennial plants are a member of the carrot family.
The flavour is sweet; the name ‘skirret’ originates from the Dutch zuikerwortel, which means ‘sugar root.’ “I like it grated raw in salads, and it’s fantastic when baked (like parsnips) or creamed,” says Westcott-Gratton. “The blanched roots are especially good when battered and deep fried, then served with a warm, sweet, and fruity relish.”
Skirret can be grown from seed or by replanting the root offsets after the plants are dug for harvest. Set the plants on 24-inch (60 cm) centers to allow the 3- to 4-foot-tall (1-1.5 m) plants enough room to produce their fleshy roots.
Cooking with Cardoon
The best way to eat cardoon, Westcott-Gratton says, is to go Italian and make ‘bagna cauda’ (hot anchovy sauce). It’s sort of an Italian fondue from the Piedmont region, but diners dunk vegetables instead of bread, and cardoon is traditional for this.
Blanch stems in boiling water (two minutes), then bread and fry. Serve hot with melted cheese and hot anchovy sauce (or tuna for the faint of heart). There are many variations – all delicious – of bagna cauda.
A member of the aster family, cardoon (Cynara cardunculus) is closely related to artichokes. North of Zone 7, cardoon is an annual and won’t overwinter reliably. In dry climates, it can become invasive if allowed to produce seed, so grow it with caution in hot, dry regions. Even if you don’t intend to eat your cardoon, the plants are extremely decorative, forming a silvery green rosette of sharply toothed leaves that grows 3 to 4 feet (1 to 1.5 m) tall and 2 feet (.6 m) wide.
Cardoon is grown for its stalks, which are usually blanched. Once harvested, the central midrib (or leaf stalk) is peeled and often steamed or baked. “The blanched stalks taste like a cross between celery and artichokes,” he says. “They can be braised in sauce, breaded and deep-fried, and added to soups or potato salad.”
In cold climates, start seed indoors, transplanting the seedlings to the garden six to eight weeks later on 3- to 4-foot (1 to 1.5 m) centers. It’s a water pig, so irrigate often and deeply if there has been no rain. “Three or four weeks before the first frosts are expected, the leaves should be bunched together with string and covered with a breathable material to exclude light,” says Westcott-Gratton, adding that he cuts up large paper bags for this.
Niki Jabbour, author of The Year-Round Vegetable Gardener, is a food gardener and garden writer who lives near Halifax, Nova Scotia.
Illustrations by Mary Ellen Carsley.