As a teacher. I look forward to summer as a time for reflection and renewal, to find new ways to improve my practice and to explore my backyard. Shortly after final exams, I joined a gathering of teachers, (past and present National Geographic’s Grosvenor Teacher Fellows) to meet up in the Badlands of South Dakota to camp and discuss and learn about storytelling and field education. And so I was able to spend some happy time learning in the field from fellow educators and exploring the vast expanses of the prairie of North America – a terrific way to start the summer.
On some level, all of the world is our backyard with as many similarities as there are differences, but what I find remarkable about the prairie is that, while it is a completely different biome from the deciduous and coniferous forests of New England, if you walk into most meadows around here many of the plants you’ll find there are the same as those in the prairies.
In fact, many of the plants that thrive in our fields and meadows are transplants from the Great Plains. And, if not transplants from the western prairie, they come from farther afield-primarily Europe, brought over by colonists, common flowers like daisies, dandelions and yarrow. Hiking through the inferno-like heat of the Badlands, I came upon one of my favorites – goat’s beard, also known as yellow salsify. I love this flower, I’m not sure why, I think perhaps because of the name, definitely because it is edible.
Since its introduction, goat’s beard has spread throughout most of the United States. I had quite a bit of it growing in the field next to my old house in New Hampshire, but haven’t discovered any in the fields around my new house in Maine (it should be there as it principally colonizes disturbed sites, meadows and old fields). Goat's beard is native to Europe and was introduced into North America as a garden plant, for food and/or as an ornamental, in the early 1900s (Thomas Jefferson had a different species growing in his gardens well before this). While some welcome it, given the right conditions goat’s beard can become an invasive weed.
Goat’s beard looks like a big dandelion, many people refer to it as a dandelion on steroids. The poofy seed head is a relative giant, often a 4- to 5-inch puffball (scientifically known as a pappus) ready to scatter its seeds to the wind. While the flowers are dandelion-like, one big difference is the long green bracts that extend beyond the yellow ring of yellow petals, giving the flower a more scraggly appearance than a dandelion. They are taller, too – between 12 and 39 inches (USDA Wildflower database).
There are three species of goat’s beard that grow in the United States, all come from Europe and all are edible. Yellow salsify (Tragopogon dubius), the variety that I have found in my own backyard and in the South Dakota prairies is not the variety most widely used as a food, the purple-flowered Tragopogon porrifolius has that distinction, but if you do have yellow salsify growing in your back field, try the root. It isn’t an easy harvest. You’ll need to dig up the root, peel it as much as possible, braise and then sauté the roots in some olive oil and butter. You won’t get much, but you’ll have the satisfaction that always comes from foraging. The flowers and flower buds are also pretty good raw or boiled, then cooled and added to salads. Or, better yet, get some seeds of the species Jefferson grew (Tragopogon porrifolius), it has a larger root and has an oyster-like flavor giving it the common name oyster plant. This was a Victorian-era favorite and is easier to grow than carrots or parsnips. Some growers call it foolproof. I plan to plant some next spring.
I don’t know how goat’s beard or the Badlands will work their way into next year’s curriculum right now, but I plan to spend a good part of this summer figuring that out.
Susan Pike, a researcher and an environmental sciences and biology teacher at St. Thomas Aquinas High School, welcomes your ideas for future column topics. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read more of her Nature News columns online.