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Perennial vegetables to plant this season

Elspeth Hay

Dave Scandurra is a landscaper in Barnstable who focuses entirely on edible gardens. But instead of annuals that need to be put in from seed every spring, he prefers perennials — plants that keep coming back on their own.

He shares some of his favorites with me.

“This is ground nut Apios americana this is a native perennial vegetable. It’s super starchy, it’s basically an underground bean, like an underground legume and so you kind of treat it like a bean, you cook it up for a long time, and you can mash it up and adds seasonings and stuff and it tastes kind of like refried beans if you cook it like that, it’s delicious, and it’s also a beautiful plant when it flowers it’s gorgeous a pink flower.”

The ground nut is also called hopniss by some indigenous Americans or Indian potato by settlers and it has a long history in North America as a culinary staple. Some sources say Wampanoag people taught the Pilgrims to dig ground nuts. When Dave pulls them out of the ground they remind me of little sausage links or peanuts connected by a root thread.

Next, Dave shows me a perennial in the brassica family that’s native to western Asia and southeastern Europe.

“Um, horseradish. I’m big on pushing horseradish on people because I’m like ok, we’re on Cape Cod, we eat a lot of shellfish, we can make our own horseradish dips and sauces and stuff,” he says. “And it’s super easy to grow, it grows like a weed, it doesn’t need any TLC you can just leave it alone, and it propagates really easily from little root cuttings.”

I ask if there are different varieties of horseradish.

“Not really. From what I gather it very rarely goes to seed, so it makes it a little difficult to improve and to work with it as far as breeding. Apparently when it does go to seed it’s a big deal apparently Luther Burbank the well-known plant breeder was really hot for looking for horseradish seeds so he could do breeding work with it. I don’t know how far he got with that.

Luthur Burbank was a horticulturalist from Massachusetts who lived from the mid 1850s to the 1920s. He bred the Shasta daisy, freestone peaches, and the Russet Burbank potato but he never got far with the horseradish. “Each horseradish is in effect a part of an original plant now endlessly divided,” wrote Burbank, who concluded after offering a one thousand dollar prize to any gardener who could send him horseradish seed that the plant produces none.

Another perennial root vegetable Dave likes is called Skirret.

“ It’s got a funny name, Skirret, Skirret, Sium sisarum is the Latin. And when it’s flowering, it’s a show stopper. So this is a perennial parsnip basically that’s the closest thing I can relate it to, it’s in the carrot parsnip family, it looks a lot like a parsnip, and I’m gonna dig up some roots just to show you.”

Dave pulls up a plant with a whole bunch of long white skinny roots that are about the size of fingers.

“ The way we cook it up we just roast it with oil and it’s basically French fries, or parsnip fries because you don’t have to cut them up you know they’re already sliced up the right size that you want them the key is getting the dirt off there’s little nooks and crannies um but you just you know spray it with a hose with a high pressure spray cook em up and they’re delicious.”

Last but not least is a perennial version of a popular hardy green.

sea kale
Elspeth Hay
sea kale

“This is called sea kale, Cramde maritima, so this is a perennial kale. The whole plant is edible—the roots, the shoots, the greens, the flowers, the seed pods, the unopened broccoli florets it’s delicious, you can eat the greens just like kale not as good raw—it’s more of a cooking green. But we always whenever we cook it we always just say man we enjoy the flavor better than kale.”

Sea Kale like common garden kale is in the brassica family, but it’s a salt-tolerant variety native to the coast of mainland Europe and the British Isles. Its leaves remind me of collard greens, and it’s an ideal plant for our sandy Cape Cod soil. Thomas Jefferson grew sea kale at Monticello in the 1820s and the flavor is described as asparagus with hints of cabbage.

Dave says he likes perennial vegetables because they’re easy, but he also thinks they’re important for a resilient garden. They add biodiversity, aid in low-till or no-till practices, and help foster healthy soil.

An avid locavore, Elspeth lives in Wellfleet and writes a blog about food. Elspeth is constantly exploring the Cape, Islands, and South Coast and all our farmer's markets to find out what's good, what's growing and what to do with it. Her Local Food Report airs Thursdays at 8:30 on Morning Edition and 5:45pm on All Things Considered, as well as Saturday mornings at 9:30.