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Pseudopodospermum hispanicum, commonly known as black salsify or Spanish salsify, also known as black oyster plant, serpent root, viper’s herb, viper’s grass or simply scorzonera, is a perennial species of plant in the sunflower family (Asteraceae), cultivated as a root vegetable in the same way as purple salsify (Tragopogon porrifolius), also in the sunflower family. It is native to Southern Europe and cultivated as a crop in Southern and Central Europe. It grows on nutrient poor soils, dry pasture, rocky areas, in thickets and on limy or marly soils of temperate zones.

Description

Pseudopodospermum hispanicum is grown commercially as an annual, although it is a biennial plant. After a vegetative phase in the first year, the plant flowers in its second year and can reach a height of 60 cm with a stem diameter of 5 cm. The hermaphroditic flowers are insect-pollinated. The flower-head is terminal and consists of yellow ray florets. The stem is smooth and leafy and the leaves are lanceolate to ovate with entire margins. Black salsify forms a long cylindrical taproot with a brownish to black cork layer. If harvested young, the carrot-like roots are tender, long and tapered with shiny white flesh. They contain a milky latex, which turns the roots black when exposed to air.

History

Black salsify is native to Southern Europe and the Near East. As is indicated by its binomial name, it is generally thought to have spread to the rest of Europe from Spain, but the first mention of the vegetable by a Western writer came from Leonhard Rauwolf, who reported seeing scorzonera at the market of Aleppo in Syria, in 1575. It was believed that the plant makes a good antidote against bites of venomous animals.: 323  Based on this, it was often claimed that the name scorzonera derives from the Old French word scorzon meaning snake (or “adder” to be exact). The most likely etymological root, though, is the Catalan word escurçonera, deriving from escurçó (viper), where the suffix -nera conveys an association or use with regards to vipers. Scorzonera must be an italian transliteration of escurçonera, explained by the long Catalan presence in Sardinia and southern Italy, influencing local languages between the 14th and 18th centuries. Less likely, the name might derive from Italian scorza negra meaning “black bark”/”black peel”, after the dark brown to black skin of the root. The plant was being cultivated as a vegetable in Italy and France by 1660 and, soon after, vast fields were grown of it in what is now Belgium.


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