Family: Apiaceae

Countries: Afghanistan, Asia, Bulgaria, China, Europe, Greece, Hungary, Iran, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Lebanon, Middle East, Mongolia, Romania, Russia, Siberia, Syria, Tadzhikistan, Turkey, Ukraine

Skirret (also known by the botanical name Sium sisarum) is a perennial root vegetable, which enjoyed great popularity in the medieval and Tudor periods, but sadly is rarely grown nowadays.  I expect Skirret’s fall from favour is due to this vegetable producing thinner roots than carrots and parsnips and therefore being far more fiddly and difficult to clean and prepare than these more popular root vegetables.  Rather than producing one large single root, as we’re used to seeing with carrots and parsnips, Skirret forms a mass of long, thin roots.

I believe that Skirret is a vegetable that has much to recommend it to both gardeners and cooks.  Skirret roots have an almost potato like texture and a super sweet, slightly carroty flavour; these roots taste absolutely delicious!  However, the only way to enjoy Skirret’s flavour is to grow your own Skirret, as these vegetables can’t be purchased in the shops!  Skirret roots can be enjoyed raw or you can boil, roast, or cook them using any number of methods.  Apparently Skirret’s young stems and its new top growth are also edible; although, I must say that I’ve not tried eating this part of the plant, as I’ve wanted to ensure that my plants had sufficient energy to produce the maximum amount of roots possible.

In addition to Skirret’s fantastic flavour, I feel that it’s both useful and rather comforting to have hardy, perennial vegetables on hand, growing away every year without fail in our gardens and allotments.  Skirret are reliable plants that don’t need any protection over winter; there’s no need to stake or support the plants; no tying in or pruning, and no requirement to cover Skirret to protect the plants from pests.  Skirret needs barely any maintenance.  I mulch my Skirret plants in springtime, using a good quality, peat-free compost, which is something I’d definitely recommend, and I’d also advise watering Skirret regularly, during periods of drought.

In the UK, we can sow Skirret seeds from the beginning of March to the end of April.  Seeds can be sown directly where you want your plants to grow, or alternatively, seed can be started off in pots of good quality, peat-free compost.  If you’re not sowing seed direct, I’d recommend using small, deep pots for Skirret to get the seeds started.  Avoid using seed trays or shallow containers when sowing Skirret seeds; as this is a plant that forms a mass of roots, which you want to encourage to grow deeply into the soil right from the moment they start growing.

Warm temperatures of 15-20C (59-68F) will encourage Skirret seeds to germinate.  After sowing Skirret seeds directly, you could place a cold frame over the area to gently warm the soil and trigger the seeds to germinate.  Alternatively, start your Skirret seeds off in containers of peat-free compost, inside a cold glasshouse to speed up germination.

If you’ve sown your Skirret seeds in containers, with a view to planting these vegetables in the border, I’d recommend planting your plants out in their final position by June.  Don’t forget to gradually harden your plants off first, if they’ve been growing inside a glasshouse or cold frame.  When choosing a spot to grow Skirret, look for a sunny or partial shaded area of your garden or allotment.  Skirret will grow well in almost any moist but well-drained soil; however, avoid growing Skirret in waterlogged soils or exceptionally dry soils.

In the UK, Skirret flowers during June, July, and August (summertime), producing umbels of ivory flowers that I’ve noticed are quite popular with hoverflies.  Skirret flowers are very similar to carrot flowers in their appearance, they’re very pretty.  I find that Skirret plants grown in a border or planted directly in the soil tend to form taller plants than container grown Skirret plants.  My border grown plants tend to reach about 90cm (3ft) tall by late summer; while the Skirret plant that you can see pictured above, that’s growing in a chimney pot, only gets to around 50cm (1.5ft) tall.

If you’re considering growing Skirret in a container, choose a deep and fairly wide container that provides your plant with ample space to grow.  I find that this chimney pot is slightly too narrow for a mature Skirret plant; although this container is good for young Skirret plants.  When choosing a container, select a planter that has plenty of holes at the base of the planter to allow water to run through the pot and out the base.  Fill your container with a good quality, peat-free compost and take care to regularly (and frequently) water your Skirret plants, during any periods of drought.

Skirret is a hardy plant that won’t need any protection through the winter months.  When Skirret’s foliage has died back in autumn, the plants are ready to be lifted and the roots can be harvested.  Carefully lift your Skirret and examine your plants and sort out and divide any offsets.  Keep the best Skirret plants to re-plant immediately after harvest; look for the healthiest plants with longer, thicker roots.  Some Skirret plants can be more prone to producing roots with a tougher core than others; so be certain of the quality of your plants before you replant or discard them.

I’ve found that Skirret thrives in rich and fertile, moisture retentive soils.  It’s really important to water Skirret in times of drought, as keeping these plants perfectly hydrated will go some way to help prevent the central core of the plant’s roots from becoming hardened and tough.

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