VIII: Scorzonera

People would dig up anything to make snake bites feel better.

Black salsify root. Photo by Goldlocki.
Black salsify root. Photo by Goldlocki.

Good morning. Today is octidi, the 8th of Brumaire, Year CCXXXI. We celebrate les scorsonères, an only-in-Europe root vegetable.

Most English translations of the French calendar take this word to refer to Scorzonera hispanica, or black salsify root, a popular delicacy of the time. However, in just three days, we have ... salsify. So I'm going to save the issue about the edible root vegetable for then. A quick thing to know about black salsify is that it has the best alternate name list I've seen for any garden veggie: black oyster plant, serpent root, viper's grass, and – the least pirate-sounding one – winter asparagus.

Before there was Shark Week, people saved their fascination and dread for snakes. If one could imagine a Snake Week at a medieval university – let's say the University of Paris, why not – the salacious course of study would include copious specimens of vipers, asps, and adders, their skin dried, their bones laid bare on the table, their skeletal fangs carefully fingered while the master made dire and Biblical warnings about the dangers of messing with snakes.

And then they'd get to business going into all the cool weapons you can make from snake venom. Venomous animals were the first source of biological warfare, dating at least back to antiquity. Arrows would be tipped with venom (and blood, and poo) to ensure that even a nick could be deadly. In some cases, naval warfare included catapulted baskets of venomous snakes which would land aboard, the snakes would bounce and scatter, then the poor crew of the boat would be slowly decimated give or take a medieval Samuel L. Jackson.

Then, after meticulously detailing all the horrific things that venom could do, perhaps the teacher would hold aloft a long, ugly black root with a spring of green atop it and a little comical yellow daisy bouncing off its top end. This, he would say, is the cure.