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Heirloom Vegetables: Skirret

Updated on March 5, 2016
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Caren White is a Master Gardener and longtime volunteer at Rutgers Gardens. She also teaches workshops at Home Gardeners School.

Skirret foliage and flowers
Skirret foliage and flowers | Source

Have you ever heard of skirret? It’s not surprising if you haven’t. Skirret hasn’t been featured on the menu since medieval times. After the discovery of the New World and the introduction of the potato, lowly skirret fell out of favor.

History

Skirret is a native of China. No one is sure when it made it all the way to Europe, but they know it was there during Roman times. It was a favorite of Emperor Tiberius. It was the Romans who introduced it England. It reached the height of its popularity in Tudor England. Skirret was eaten raw in salads. It loses its flavor when cooked.

What is it?

Skirret is related to carrots. Like carrots, the roots are consumed rather than the foliage. It has many skinny white roots, 6 to 8 inches long, instead of one long root. Its flavor is similar to a parsnip. And like carrots, it has a sweet flavor which grows sweeter if left in the ground after the frost.

The plants reach 4 feet in height and 1 to 2 feet in diameter. Skirret is a perennial that is hardy in zones in 3 through 8, although most people grow it as an annual, harvesting the roots in the fall. If the roots are left in the soil until spring, they become woody and hairy.

The flowers are tiny and white and grow in umbrels on 2 foot stems. Bees and other beneficial insects find them irresistible.

How do I grow it?

Skirret is not difficult to grow. It’s not fussy about soil although it does like it wet. Its native habitat is streambanks. In fact one of its common names is “water parsnip”. You do have to be careful to keep your plants well-watered. If they get too dry, the roots become fibrous and unpleasant to eat. It likes full sun but doesn’t mind a little shade.

You can start your plants in several ways. You can simply plant one or more of the skinny roots which will grow into a new plant or if you just have a piece of one of the roots, plant it and it too will grow into a new plant. Roots should be planted 2 inches deep.

If you are growing from seed, you can direct sow it in your garden, after all danger of frost has passed and the soil has warmed to 65⁰F to 70⁰F. The seeds will not germinate in cold soil. Sow your seeds approximately ½ inch deep. Germination should happen within 30 days. Thin the seedlings to 18 inches apart.

You can also start your seeds indoors 8 weeks before your last frost. Plant your seedlings in your garden after all danger of frost has passed.

How do I harvest and store the roots?

When the foliage dies, it’s time to harvest your roots. Simply dig them up and store them as you would carrots. Either wrapped and kept cold in the refrigerator or in damp sand in a root cellar. Store the roots whole. If they break or are damaged, use them right away. Damaged roots quickly rot. Skirret keeps better if you don’t clean it until you are ready to eat it.

© 2016 Caren White

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    • FlourishAnyway profile image

      FlourishAnyway 15 months ago from USA

      So interesting! I haven't heard of this! Would love to try it!

    • OldRoses profile image
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      Caren White 15 months ago from Franklin Park, NJ

      Me too, Flourish! I love trying historic foods.

    • BlossomSB profile image

      Bronwen Scott-Branagan 15 months ago from Victoria, Australia

      I haven't heard of this one. I must ask my daughter if she has! She loves unusual edible plants. I only have a small garden, but I grow sorrel and it goes so well in salads. Recently I've been having fun with sweet potatoes, too.

    • OldRoses profile image
      Author

      Caren White 15 months ago from Franklin Park, NJ

      Blossom, your garden sounds wonderful! Thanks so much for reading and commenting.

    • OldRoses profile image
      Author

      Caren White 14 months ago from Franklin Park, NJ

      Blossom, I hadn't heard of skirret until very recently myself! I love plants that have a lot of history behind them. Thanks for reading and commenting.

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