Skirret was once a very well known small to medium-sized perennial root crop. Its bright white, pencil-thin roots are sweet and said to have a flavor somewhere between potato and parsnip. Unfortunately, this is one plant I have yet to taste. I keep my eyes open in my travels through the U.S., Europe, and the Middle East in hopes of finding some to sample one day.
Likely originating in China, Skirret made its way to Europe early in the Middle Ages where it was a primary root crop. Unfortunately, Skirret was rather quickly replaced by the potato (from South America) given that potatoes are a larger, more easily cleaned crop. However, skirret is still used widely through northeastern Asia.
- The name “Skirret” comes from the Dutch “Suikerwortel” meaning “sugar root”.
- The wild ancestor of Skirret grows on the banks of waterways. This shows how tolerant skirret is of moist soils.
- Pliny the Elder stated that Skirret was a favorite vegetable of the Emperor Tiberius.
USING THIS PLANT
- Cooked (primarily): boiled, roasted, baked, braised, stewed, creamed, mashed, batter-fried
- Used interchangeably or with carrots, parsnips, potatoes, or salsify in most recipes
- Raw: peeled, sliced, chopped, or grated
- General insect nectar plant
- Specialist insect nectar plant… lacewings prefer Skirret plants
- Refuge plant for parasitoid wasps… they like to hide in Skirret foliage
- Historically was used as a flavoring in beers, wines, and liquors
Yield: Varies widely depending on plant, soil, climate, and growing conditions in general
Harvesting: Autumn – Winter (October – March) after the foliage is killed by the frost. Skirret becomes sweeter with frosts like carrots and parsnips. Break the individual roots free and scrub the dirt off with a brush under running water. If you have a plant with a woody core, then the sweeter, softer root surrounding the core needs to be cut to scraped away first – try using a vegetable peeler. This emphasizes the importance of choosing higher-quality, woody-core-free cultivars.
Storage: Store like carrots… unwashed/uncleaned and wrapped in plastic and stored in the coldest part of the refrigerator, or unwashed and stored in straw or barely moist sand in a cool, high-humidity location like a root cellar. Keep the roots whole – if the root is damaged or broken, use them fresh instead of stored. Can be stored with other root vegetables like potatoes. Should not be stored near/with fruit (like apples), since they give off ethylene gas that can cause spoilage or off flavors.
DESIGNING WITH THIS PLANT
USDA Hardiness Zone: 4-9 (Zone 4 at a minimum, maybe even colder)
AHS Heat Zone: None described
Chill Requirement: Since this is a root crop, a chill requirement is rather irrelevant; however, this plant does appear to produce better in areas that are a bit colder. Also, flavor seems to get better with below freezing temperatures.
Plant Type: Small to Medium-sized Herbaceous Perennial
Leaf Type: Deciduous
Forest Garden Use: Underground layer; Small to Medium-sized Herbaceous Perennial
Cultivars/Varieties: There are a number of unnamed varieties available. Be sure to find one that is free of a woody core in the roots. It may take some time and a few sources to find a good, high quality parent plant that we can propagate on our land.
Flowering: August – September
Life Span: No good data as this plant is harvested and split well before its lifespan reaches its end.
PHYSICAL CHARACTERISTICS OF THIS PLANT
Size: 4 feet (1 meter) tall and 1-2 foot (0.3-0.6 meters) wide
Growth Rate: Medium
GROWING CONDITIONS FOR THIS PLANT
Light: Prefers full sun
Shade: Easily tolerates light shade (about 50%)
Moisture: Can tolerate high moisture levels, but does not require them.
pH: Can handle slightly acidic to alkaline soils
Special Considerations for Growing:
Skirret can tolerate rather wet and/or maritime soils.
It appears to grow the best tasting and least fibrous roots in rich, moist soils.
Propagation: Very easy to divide from the root. It is a classic “plant/replant perennial” plant… i.e. we can harvest a plant, take some of the roots for harvest and replant some of the remainder in the original hole and the rest in new locations where it will grow into a new plant.
Skirret can be grown from seed; however, the new plant is typically inferior to the parent plant.
Minimal once established.