Saturday, December 11, 2004

No more salsify?

Anyone who's into gardening has probably heard that we're losing heirloom plants at a rate of thousands per year. The genetic diversity of cultivated vegetables, fruits, and herbs is dropping at an alarming rate, which could have catastrophic effects on our ability to feed ourselves planetwide.

Of course, some of us are more selfish-minded than that. I personally get all hot under the collar upon learning that many of the plants Thomas Jefferson grew at Monticello can't be found today. What if they tasted good? What if they might have been my favorite thing ever?

When I visited Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill in 2000, I was served a dish of scalloped salsify. It was delicious. I had never eaten salsify before that, but immediately I knew I'd have to figure out a way to get my hands on more of it.

So when I moved here and suddenly had a bunch of arable land at my disposal, I bought a package of salsify seeds at Victory Seeds and planted them in my garden. They sprouted like gangbusters, and I looked forward to the full-grown roots with great anticipation. Unfortunately, by midsummer the burrowing animals discovered them and found them just as tasty as I did. One by one, the plants were pulled down to their subterranean rodential doom.

Anyhow, the other day I got a catalog from Pinetree Garden Seeds and noted with some alarm that their Mammoth Sandwich Island salsify (the only breed of the plant I'd ever seen advertised) was listed as a "Last Chance" purchase. They're dropping it from their catalog, probably due to low demand. I surfed around on the 'net and found the Sandwich Island seeds in all the usual places, including Victory, but I got to wondering: Isn't there any other breed? Are we down to one genetic population of salsify?

Then I found Harvest Moon Farms & Seed Company, and I was delighted to find that they still offer two varieties of salsify, plus two breeds of a similar European vegetable called scorzonera. That's still not nearly enough--how many do you suppose there were in the 19th century? the 18th?--but at least there's more than one.

Fortified with this information, I plan to grow salsify again after I move. Only this time, I'm going to grow the plants in deep containers with chicken wire cages over them! This cannot be left to chance, because I swear up and down that I'm going to make some scalloped salsify one of these days.