The black salsify is native to Southern Europe and the Near East. As is indicated by its binomial name, it is generally thought to have spread to the rest of Europe from Spain.The name of the genus Scorzonera probably derives from the Old French word scorzon, meaning snake. The Celtic and Germanic peoples are believed to have eaten the black salsify, which was considered efficaceous against the bubonic plague and snake bites until the 16th century. The plant was being cultivated as a vegetable in Italy and France by 1660, however, and soon after, the Belgians were growing vast fields of it.
The black salsify is considered nutritious: it contains proteins, fats, the glycosides asparagine, choline and laevulin, as well as minerals such as potassium, calcium, phosphorus, iron, sodium, and vitamins A, B1, E and C. Since it also contains the glycoside inulin, which consists of fructose, it is particularly suitable for diabetics.
The thick black skin of the salsify root is inedible and must be removed either prior to or after boiling. If the skin is removed prior to boiling, the peeled root should be immediately immersed in water mixed with vinegar and flour, in order to prevent discolouring. Since the root sap is extremely sticky, it is often more convenient to peel it after boiling the root for 20 to 25 minutes.
Black salsify is often eaten together with other vegetables, such as peas and carrots. But it is also popular in a white sauce, such as bechamel sauce or mustard sauce. Boiled salsify roots may also be coated with batter and deep fried.
Belgium, France and the Netherlands are the world's largest producers of black salsify. It is, however, very hardy and will grow well in most cool temperate climates. In British gardens it is common to profit from its perennial character by leaving it in the ground until its roots have grown to sufficient size for harvesting; this can take two years.