Are Exotic Vegetables Worth the Trouble?


Photo by Carol Ann Sayle

A woman just called asking if I grow burdock. She is on a macrobiotic diet, and burdock is very healing, she said, and impossible to find in Austin. I told her I've been thinking about growing it--and also scorzonera, for which I actually ordered the seed--but it's too hot still. She then wanted to know if any other farmers in the area grow burdock. I doubt it, I replied, it's weird stuff for down here.

One reason some farmers eschew the more exotic vegetative creatures, other than the doubt that anyone in his right mind would eat these roots (as in "You eat that? Why, I wouldn't give it to the dog!"), is that they can be a bit difficult in one way or another. I've sown parsnip seeds for five years now, caving in to requests from chefs and a few home cooks, and the plants actually do well here over the winter, but the harvest is a chore.

Tears and vows of "never again!" accompany my desperate efforts to extract them quickly while a customer waits at the farm stand to satisfy her dream of having this Irish treat.

I've battled the tenacity of the parsnips, jumping up and down on a spading fork in hard dry soil, wiggling the handle back and forth--hoping it doesn't break and gut me in the process--and then too often digging a tine through the parsnip itself, which is a great disappointment, except that then we get to eat one! In contrast, I've bare-handedly wrenched them out of soppy wet muck, my fingers carving the goo off the root deeply until I can grasp it with both hands and pull with all my might. Of course the long root snaps off and I nearly tumble backwards.

It seems rather idiotic to want a crop so much, especially one that does not give up its home easily. Even though the parsnip is wide at the ground level and tapers radically to finger width (achieving a length of two or more feet!) there are these "wire" roots that run out perpendicularly to the main root and they are fiercely stuck.

Tears and vows of "never again!" accompany my desperate efforts to extract them quickly while a customer waits at the farm stand to satisfy her dream of having this Irish treat. And once I've washed them and cut off the wires, they look rather innocent on the market tables. But the snapped off root ends give a hint of the struggle...

And now, as I read the seed catalog's directions for growing burdock and scorzonera, I see that they, like parsnips, prefer a "loose, deep carrot soil." As in loose and fluffy. Even though we grow a lot of carrots, we don't have that kind of soil. When our rains finally come, they are hard-pounding drenches; when the heat sets in, it burns up organic matter and bakes the soil into a semblance of concrete. So much for "carrot soil."

Additionally, I'm admonished by the catalog to not mistake scorzonera seedlings for grass (like nut grass, which we have in great abundance); I'm to keep them carefully weeded, for months. And burdock is pencil thin and two feet long as well. Of course, it also likes carrot soil, and it takes a long time to mature; it has to be weeded for four months! Trouble lies ahead for me for sure, since I plan to sow all three of these root crops in November.

But, you know, if it was all easy, there'd be no market for the unique delicacies. Since it's hard, the supply is non-existent and the demand therefore is great. Oh my, I should stick to squash and tomatoes, but I do like a challenge. And these oddities deliver that!