Our golden retriever, Lucy, left us last spring at age fourteen. She was always very helpful in the kitchen and garden, eating overgrown green beans, apple and pear cores, kale stalks and pretty much every other leftover vegetable and fruit except rhubarb. Lucy treated our early morning walks as trips down a buffet line. Depending on the season, she’s gorge on acorns, red clover flowers, harvested corn cob pieces, dandelion stalks, and the subject of this column, goatsbeard. She’s zip along the side of the road barely turning her head as she snapped off one goatsbeard bud after another. I’d allow her about 100 each morning and then I’d have to leash her and try to drag her home. It was all I could do to keep her from gobbling 100 more of them.
You’ve probably seen goatsbeard, but may not have paid attention until later in the summer when the seedheads form. Beginning in June, the yellow flowers look like extra tall dandelions. Later, the seed heads resemble spent dandelions except that they are tennis-ball sized or larger and perfectly round. Maybe you’ve noticed them alongside sunny roads or trails or at the edges of farm fields or vacant lots.
Yellow goatsbeard goes by several other names. Among them are wild salsify, wild oysterplant, Johnny-go-to-bed-at noon and shepherd’s clock. There is a white-flowered garden plant commonly called goatsbeard that looks similar to astilbe, but it is unrelated to the goatsbeard we’re talking about today. See, this confusion among common names of plants is why Latin names are used. Lucy’s goatsbeard was Tragopogon pratensis.
The name “Johnny-go-to-bed-at-noon” stems from the flower’s habit of opening in the morning sometime after sunrise, following the sun partially across the sky, and then closing up again midday. That early opening habit is why I had to walk Lucy at the crack of dawn every morning – once the flowers open, they are attractive to bees and after one emergency trip to the vet where she was stung inside her mouth by a bee, I didn’t want to repeat it. On cloudy days, goatsbeard buds may not open at all; on gray days we didn’t have to get out for our walk quite so early.
The “wild salsify” name comes from goatsbeard’s relation to the cultivated food plant salsify which is very similar except that its bloom is purple. “Oysterplant” is from the fact that some people think the plant’s root tastes mildly of oysters.
Goatsbeard is native to Europe. It was introduced to the United States in the early 1900s either as a garden plant or as a food source. There are accounts saying both. Since it was introduced, it has spread across the United States and Canada. Unlike many plants brought from Europe around the same time, goatsbeard, while considered a weed, hasn’t become invasive or caused negative economic impact except for in some parts of British Columbia.
Goatsbeard is a biennial plant, meaning it lives for two years. The first year it forms a rosette of long strappy leaves. The second year, flower stalks form and grow from 12 to 40 inches tall depending on conditions. Occasionally it can stay in a vegetative state for up to ten years before flowering, but it always dies at the end of the year it flowers. Flowers are about 1 ½ to 2 ¼ inches across and on closer inspection are a little more lemony in color than a dandelion and resemble a cross between a dandelion and a daisy in shape. Gray-green leaves are grass-like in appearance and taper to a fine point which curls downward at the ends. Both the leaves and the flower stalks exude a milky sap when broken.
Seeds spread by wind and water, attaching themselves to animals and birds and uh, by passing through animals, as we learned when a stand of goatsbeard sprouted in the un-mowed areas of our backyard. Along with Lucy, a wide variety of birds and mammals, including white-tailed deer, grouse, and domestic sheep and cattle consume goatsbeard seeds and flowers.
The leaves, roots, flowers and stems of goatsbeard are edible (to humans too), both raw and cooked. Roots are fleshy, thick and long and must be peeled. If they are tough or don’t taste good raw, cook them like carrots or parsnips. Roots can also be grated and added to salads or stews or sautéed. Roots are best harvested before the plant flowers. Stems are best eaten when young, just an inch or two tall, and can be cooked like asparagus. Lower leaves are more tender than upper ones. Leaves and young shoots can be added to salads or used in soups. Flowers can be mixed into soups or salads or sautéed. Unopened flower buds can be lightly steamed.
Goatsbeard seedheads can be carefully harvested and sprayed with spray paint for holiday decorations: red, white and blue for Independence Day; orange and black for Halloween; or red, green, silver and gold for Christmas. If the seedheads are too fragile for the spray paint, first mist them with hairspray.
10 to 15 thin goatsbeard stems (with flowers and leaves)
1 thinly sliced onion
Butter or oil to sauté
Sauté all ingredients over low heat in either butter or oil until onions are clear and the goatsbeard has become soft. Serve immediately.
TRIPLE GOATSBEARD SAMPLER
Harvest flower buds before they have opened. Also harvest leaves and stalks. Rinse thoroughly with water, and pat dry.
Separate buds and leaves from stalks and make three piles: buds, leaves, and stalks.
Steam the stalks. Saute the leaves in olive and sprinkle with salt. Place leaves on a plate with the steamed stalks. Garnish with raw or steamed flower buds. Serve hot or at room temperature.
Optional: Drizzle with truffle oil or hollandaise sauce.
GOATSBEARD LEAVES PASTA PRIMAVERA
4 c. freshly harvested goatsbeard leaves
1 medium zucchini
1 medium yellow summer squash
1 c. cherry tomatoes
1 t. salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Parmesan cheese (optional)
Preheat oven to 375°. Rinse goatsbeard leaves and set aside. Chop zucchini and summer squash into bite sized pieces. Toss with cherry tomatoes in olive oil to lightly coat and sprinkle with salt. Roast in oven until soft, about 45 minutes. Meanwhile bring a pot of water to a boil. Boil goatsbeard leaves for 5 minutes; drain.
To serve, line plates or serving bowl with the boiled leaves. Top with roasted vegetables. Sprinkle with a handful of pine nuts and plenty of fresh ground black pepper. Add Parmesan cheese if desired.
Variation: For a raw salad, use the same ingredients, but do not cook. Toss well with an olive oil, vinegar and tahini dressing. Allow to sit 10-30 minutes before serving.