Scorzonera (Scorzonera hispanica) is a plant with edible roots that is closely related to salsify. Both are members of the daisy family (Asteraceae), which also includes vegetables such as artichokes, cardoons, and lettuces. Scorzonera roots have a black skin and a richer flavor while salsify are white and have a milder taste. The name is thought to have originated from a combination of the Italian words “scorza” (bark) and “nera” (black). Other names for scorzonera include "black salsify", "serpent root", and "viper's grass". The latter term probably was coined because the plant was initially considered an anti-venom agent during the Middle Ages. Today Belgium is the largest producer and exporter of scorzonera in the world.
The scorzonera plant is native to Southern Europe and was cultivated as early as the 16th century. It grows to be about two to three feet tall with slender, edible leaves and flowers that look like daisies. The root resembles a black parsnip or carrot with white to cream colored flesh. Some say the flavor is faintly reminiscent of seafood, which is why scorzonera is also called the "oyster plant". The plants are sown in the spring and the roots are harvested from late fall through winter.
Scorzonera is much more popular in Europe than the United States, so readers living in the latter region may have difficulty finding it. Try to find the roots in a well-stocked supermarket or farmer's market in the fall and select ones that are firm and unblemished. Store them in the fridge, as cold storage will make the roots even sweeter. Raw pieces of root, as well as young leaves, stalks, and flowers from the plant, can be eaten in salads. When preparing the root scrub well but do not peel the skin, as most of the flavor lies there. If you cut the root, keep the pieces in water with a splash of lemon juice to prevent discoloration. The root is commonly steamed, baked, or boiled and can be mashed like potatoes with salt, butter, and pepper. They are also good with milk and cream. Suitable substitutes for scorzonera include parsnips, carrots, potatoes, or salsify.