How to Grow Skirret, an Heirloom Vegetable

Updated on April 6, 2020
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Caren White is a Master Gardener and instructor at Home Gardeners School. She has been associated with Rutgers Gardens for over a decade.

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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 from South America, the lowly skirret fell out of favor.

What is Skirret?

Skirret (Sium sisarum) is a native of China. No one is sure when it made its way to Europe, but they know it was there during Roman times. It was a favorite of Emperor Tiberius. The Romans introduced it to England when they colonized it. Skirret reached the height of its popularity in Tudor England. It was eaten raw in salads because it is less flavorful when cooked.

Skirret is related to carrots. Like carrots, it is the roots which are consumed rather than the foliage. The plants have many skinny white roots, 6 to 8 inches long and about the width of a pencil, instead of one long root like carrots. 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.

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 plants reach 4 feet in height and 1 to 2 feet in diameter.

The flowers are tiny and white and grow in umbels on 2 foot stems. Bees and other beneficial insects find them irresistible. If you don’t want to eat the roots, plant it to attract pollinators to your vegetable garden.

How to Grow Skirret

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 have to be careful to keep your plants well-watered. If they get too dry, the roots become fibrous and unpleasant to eat. Skirret likes full sun but doesn’t mind a little shade. Space your plants 18 inches apart.

How to Grow Skirret From Divisions

You can start new plants from divisions. When you harvest the roots, separate some of them and replant them whole about 2 inches deep. They will grow into new plants, just like horseradish. This also works if you just have a piece of one of the roots. Plant the piece and it too will grow into a new plant. The pieces should be planted 2 inches deep just like the whole roots.

A botanical illustration showing skirret roots and flowers.
A botanical illustration showing skirret roots and flowers. | Source

How to Grow Skirret From Seed

If you are growing from seed, you can direct sow the seeds in your garden, after your last frost when 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 occur within 30 days. A long germination period is normal for perennial plants. Thin the seedlings to 18 inches apart.

You can also start your seeds indoors 8 weeks before your last frost. Plant them ½ inches deep in containers filled with moist soil. Place your containers in a sunny window and keep the soil moist. Germination should occur in 30 days. You can plant your seedlings in your garden after all danger of frost has passed when the soil has warmed to 65⁰F to 70⁰F. Space them 18 inches apart.

How to Harvest Skirret

When the foliage dies in the fall, it’s time to harvest your roots. Carefully dig up your plants with a garden fork and brush the soil from the roots. They will keep better if you don’t wash them until you are ready to eat them.

How to Store Skirret

Store the roots as you would carrots; either wrapped in plastic and kept cold in the refrigerator or unwrapped in damp sand in a root cellar. The roots will last 2 – 3 weeks in the refrigerator. They will last 4 – 6 months in a root cellar. Do not store them near fruit because they give off ethylene gas which will hasten the ripening process and cause the fruit to rot.

Store the roots whole. If they break or are damaged, use them right away. Damaged roots quickly rot.

© 2016 Caren White

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    • OldRoses profile imageAUTHOR

      Caren White 

      4 years ago

      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.

    • OldRoses profile imageAUTHOR

      Caren White 

      4 years ago

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

    • BlossomSB profile image

      Bronwen Scott-Branagan 

      4 years 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 imageAUTHOR

      Caren White 

      4 years ago

      Me too, Flourish! I love trying historic foods.

    • FlourishAnyway profile image

      FlourishAnyway 

      4 years ago from USA

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

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