It was never in my plans to get into trouble. Somehow, it just happened, much like the cartoon character of years ago who walked around with a dark cloud over his head. This is the story of a nondescript plant that is no longer known for much of anything, but when I was growing up, it was found often on our dinner table.
Goatsbeard is the common name for several plants, but I am talking about the goatsbeard that sightly resembles a dandelion. Tragopogon pratensis grows in fields, along roadsides, ditches and on rocky banks. Actually it grows most anywhere, and with great abundance. Some consider it invasive because of its long tap root. Chop it down and it comes right back, dig it up and usually the seeds have already spread. It can be quite attractive, though not when it is in bloom, but afterward, when the seed head forms.
It grew wherever it wanted to grow in the mountains, and one year I was really into drying flowers to use for decorating. At the same time, Aunt Bett was looking for plants that were edible and we were on our way to find goatsbeard. It was the fall of the year with just a bit of nip in the air. I had on overalls that had lots of pockets, a long sleeved red gingham shirt, and I remember having new red tennis shoes. Around my hair I wore a red bandana, tied under my chin like a kerchief. I was too young to place any importance on fashion, but I have always been aware of color, and usually I dressed in things that matched, as long as they were red or blue. We started walking along the edge of a field and since Aunt Bett was not climbing the mountain, I thought she might be in a conversational mood. So I asked her about the plant we were on our way to dig.
"Aunt Bett, what kinda plant would be called goatsbeard? I never saw a goat, but wonder why a plant would be named after a goat? You reckon it's somethin' the goats like to eat? There's a song called 'Bill Bailey's goat was feelin' fine, ate three red shirts right off th' line'. You know that song, Aunt Bett? It's a funny song, is it really true that goats eat red shirts, you reckon I should go back and change to a different color?" All that was said in maybe 2 seconds, without a breath in between.
Aunt Bett said: "Chile, you talk so fast I can't 'member what it was you was askin', and even if I did, it ain't got nothun' to do with goats. We're just goin' to get summa them roots to cook fer supper. Goats, goodness mercy, what'll you think of next? See them fuzz balls over yonder? That's them, we're gonna dig 'em up."
"We're gonna eat fuzz balls for supper. Aunt Bett, I'm eatin' no fuzz balls, an' that's that!"
The white seeds give goatsbeard its name, and it is a really pretty, large ball of feathery white seeds. The plant blooms only in the morning with a bright yellow flower, but the flower is not nearly as attractive as the seed head. There are several species of this plant, and they all have similar qualities so most people lump them together and call them all by the name, goatsbeard. All species have edible, nutritious taproots that many people claim taste like parsnips. There was also a name for the product when it was cooked and that's what Aunt Bett called it when it appeared on the supper table: salsify.
Salsify is made by boiling or roasting the taproots as a vegetable, or the stalks are cooked like asparagas and the crowns, or leaf bases, like artichokes and are gently simmered. They also use the tender leaves that appear in spring in salads or cook them as a green vegetable, much like any kind of greens. No matter which part she used, Aunt Bett always added a little bacon grease, and cooked it till it was very tender. With cornbread, it was pretty tasty stuff. I was not too fond of the cooked roots, they tasted too much like dirt to me. Well, yes, I have tasted dirt a few times, so I do know what I am talking about.
So we got to the patch of goatsbeard and she was digging deep for the long, fleshy taproot and I was helping her by putting them in the burlap bag she carried. I asked her if she was going to use the seed balls. I was thinking of using them as dried decorations and told her. She told me that was fine and I could gather some before we left, but she said she had nothing to carry them in.
"That's OK, Aunt Bett. I got lotsa pockets in my overhalls, so I can put them all in my pockets." And so I did. I stuffed the pockets on each side, I stuffed the hip pockets, and I stuffed the bib pocket with goatsbeard seed balls, most of which were about 3 inches across and full of fuzzy seeds. I was a happy kid.
There was a time when goatsbeard was used as a medicinal plant, Aunt Bett mentioned that the plant was used as a diuretic and for treating kidney stones and heartburn. There is nothing toxic about the plant, but there is no scientific evidence that it has any medicinal benefit. As far as Aunt Bett was concerned, it was only another food provided by the mountains.
I must have had supper with her that night, and when I got home I played around with one thing or another until bedtime, then I went to take a bath. I dropped my clothes into the clothes hamper, and thought nothing more of the seed balls in my pockets. The next wash day came, and when I got home from school, my mother was waiting for me.
She stood ten feet tall and with her hands on her hips she said: "I have a small chore for you, and you WILL take care of it right now!" She led me to the basement where the wringer washer was kept. It stood on four legs, the wringer was on top, and a large black rubber hose ran out of the bottom to the drainpipe in the concrete floor. There was also a smaller black hose that attached to a faucet on the wall and ran over to the top of the washer. One let the water in, the other let the water out. I was not tall enough to see into the washer, so mother told me to pull the step stool over and look at what I had done. Inside the washer were the remains of as many seed balls as I had in my pockets. They weren't so pretty now, just wet, covering the entire bottom of the washer and clogging the outgoing hose. "You WILL clean out the washer," she said, "and you WILL pick all this mess off every piece of clothing that I washed with your overalls today. And you WILL NEVER put another thing into the clothes hamper until you have gone through the pockets."
"Well, Momma, it coulda been a frog or a snake, so you really oughtta be glad it was just them seed balls."
"I think YOU are the one who should be glad it was only seed balls," said my mother, the teacher.
I spent a few hours hanging head first into the open washer, behind up in the air, feet dangling down the side of it. While I worked, I sang over and over again: "Bill Bailey's goat, was feelin' fine, ate three red shirts, right off th' line........"
All photos are from Plant Files. Thanks to these photographers: Stevenova for the large seed head, sallyg for the bloom, and JodyC for the foliage with seed heads. The bandana is my own.
About Sharon Brown
I am a retired high school art and humanities teacher. I grew up in the Appalachian mountains of southeast KY and now I live with my two rescued cats, Jazz and Daisy, in far western KY. I am an artist often doing commissioned work, and in addition to writing articles for Dave's Garden, I also write boating stories for a nautical magazine as well as other venues. My greatest loves are writing, painting, my 5 year old grandson, then learning the history of our numerous wildflowers in Kentucky. And, of course, there's gardening.