Crosnes, Salsify, and Skirret: Rare Root Crops

Grow crosnes, salsify, and skirret in your winter garden, and then incorporate the unique flavors of these root crops into your cooking.

| Winter 2016-2017

  • Cooks relate the complex, delicate flavors of 'Luethy' salsify to both oysters and oatmeal.
    Photo by William Woys Weaver
  • Biennial salsify plants bear pretty purple blooms in their second year.
    Photo by istock/is_imagesource
  • Perennial skirret will provide edible roots year after year.
    Photo by Dreamstime/heike rau
  • Red shiso imparts a rose-colored hue when pickling crosne roots for chorogi, which often tops sweet black soybeans in Japanese cuisine.
    Photo by Fotolia/uckyo
  • Allow these root crops to spark your culinary creativity. Try a salsify salad with lentils and red onion.
    Photo by Stockfood/Harry Bischof
  • Skirret, an ancient crop, yields slender roots with a delectable, buttery flavor.
    Photo by Stockfood/Scenics Design
  • Crosnes roots can be cooked, pickled, or used to add crunch to salads and stir-fries.
    Photo by Stockfood/Becky Lawton
  • Small, unusually shaped crosnes are a bit time-intensive to harvest, but the flavors make the process worth it.
    Photo by Norm Shafer

Serious gardeners, small-scale market farmers, and the managers of community-supported agriculture (CSAs) programs are always on the lookout for unique crops — especially those they can harvest through winter. Many restaurateurs also support seasonal eating by shopping for unusual, local ingredients to fill out their menus during the chilly months. We need not look too far to find interesting options because an array of old-fashioned crops is well-suited to take up the call where summer vegetables leave off. I’ve grown crosnes (Stachys affinis), skirret (Sium sisarum), and salsify (Tragopogon porrifolius) for more than 35 years and have gotten to know them well. They are the “three sisters” of my winter garden, and they’ve kept my table amply supplied with unusual and delightful dishes.

All three of these epicurean treasures remain fairly close to their wild ancestors. Perennial crosnes and skirret are hardy in Zones 4 to 8. Salsify is a Mediterranean crop and, as a biennial, requires a winter rest period. It’s hardy in Zones 6 to 8 (or into colder Zones if given ample winter protection). Aside from their preference for sandy loam, all three crops benefit from deep trenching, which leads to well-shaped tubers. Crosnes do well in damp locations, and skirret is quite at home on swampy ground or a bank along a stream. If you have winter garden plots that collect water because of poor runoff, they may lend themselves well to a crop of crosnes or skirret — I’ve planted both in what I call my “swamp,” and they love it. Low spots tend to ice over, however, so plant these vegetables in a well-drained area under row covers to access them for winter harvests. The same can be said for planting salsify, which will also supply a healthy crop of edible greens when given such protection.

These high-yield root crops are usually free of pests, so they’re quite low-maintenance for organic gardeners. Deer relish salsify greens, but using row covers or a repellent called Liquid Fence will help deter them. Voles are the only serious problems I’ve experienced when growing these rare crops. Fortunately, my farm’s stealthy resident cats have halted many voles in their tracks — and they’ve been rewarded accordingly.

Cultivate and Cook with Crosnes

Perennial crosnes originated in eastern Asia, where the tubers are mostly made into pickles. These plants were brought to France in the 19th century under the name “Chinese artichoke,” and eventually took their European name, crosnes, from the French village where they were first cultivated.

In cookery, you can treat crosne tubers like water chestnuts. Their mildly nutty, artichoke-like flavor and crunchy texture complement salads, stir-fries, and mixed vegetables. They also make excellent pickles because they retain their crispness well. Many Japanese cooks pickle crosnes with red shiso under the name “chorogi,” which you can purchase in jars in most Asian grocery stores. (For more information on growing and cooking with shiso, see “Revitalizing Shiso”. Rather than the red saltiness of chorogi, I prefer sweet-and-sour combinations. Green shiso is quite pleasant for contrasting flavor, especially if you add a few hot peppers to the mix. In fact, most cooks in the United States haven’t explored the full culinary potential of crosnes, so this rare crop remains on the cutting edge of American cuisine.

Crosnes foliage resembles mint in appearance, and the plants spread via knobby tubers that develop around the roots during late summer and early fall. For best results, plant the tubers in a grid pattern, 4 inches apart in each direction. Crosnes bloom with attractive, purple, spiky flowers that look similar to bishop’s wort (Stachys officinalis) blossoms — not surprising, as the two are botanically related. Because of their handsome flowers, crosne plants lend themselves to accenting colorful, edible landscapes. Keep an eye on them, though, as crosnes can become invasive when grown as ornamentals.

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