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Posted at 7:00 AM ET, 01/31/2011

Groundwork: Winter (a)musings

By Adrian Higgins

Seed-starting season is virtually upon us. At the moment, I'm starting kohlrabi and artichokes. We'll crank things up with more gusto in a couple of weeks, so hang tight. Meanwhile, I thought All-We-Can-Eaters might be amused by this conundrum:

Arcimboldo's "The Vegetable Gardener." This is the upside-down view. (Museo Civico Ala Ponzone, Cremona/National Gallery of Art)

I recently wrote about a painting of vegetables by the celebrated 16th-century Habsburg court painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo, whose shtick was to fashion subjects from the bounty of the garden. In this case, the still life is turned upside down to reveal a bumpkin-like vegetable gardener. The bowl becomes his hat, his lips are of mushrooms, a cheek of onion, a nose of radish: You get the picture.

When it came to the beard of "The Vegetable Gardener," however, I was stumped. Here's what I wrote: "The white rooted vegetables that come to mind -- parsnips, salsify, scorzonera, parsley root -- all have different foliage from the one depicted. It might be a radish lost to cultivation."

This in turn triggered a few e-mails from curious and informed readers who had their own ideas about the mystery veggie. One response suggested a clump of daikon radishes. Daikon is one of the most amusing vegetables to grow, because it develops enormous and elongated edible, white roots. It's best grown as a fall crop in our region, by the way, when it can develop without suffering from the accumulating heat of the spring. But I wasn't sold on the daikon theory. Arcimboldo depicted roots that looked far too slender, even when you take into account artistic license. Also, the daikon may have made it from Asia back to the Mediterranean (the geographic origin of radishes) by Arcimboldo's time, but it is more likely he used something far more common and to hand in his arrangement.

Henrietta Keller, of Garrett Park, wrote to say that the beard "sure looks like dandelions to me." Henrietta's was one of several e-mails favoring the dandelion, and a canny guess that was. Certainly the dandelion was grown as a valuable leafy green then (and now), and the leaf form fits the bill. The word dandelion, after all, comes from dent de lion, tooth of the lion, after the jagged leaves. But was it used as a root veggie, and if not would Arcimboldo have used it as prominently as such?

I had just about given up all hope of figuring it out when I got an e-mail from my colleague Emily Langer, who is studying in Italy for a year. She was poring over the story with her friend Umberto Pezzoni, a veteran and accomplished gardener in Milan.

Umberto had pegged the veggie as a root chicory, cicoria di Soncino. Soncino is a town not far from Milan, where Arcimboldo painted "The Vegetable Gardener," and a place just 12 kilometers from Umberto's birthplace. The leaf form and root dimensions would seem to make it the veggie in question.

Writes Emily: "Umberto has his catalogue here in front of him and can tell you that it costs 1.70 Euro for a packet of seeds. :) How smug, did you notice the smiley face?"

I think Umberto's hometown chicory root is the same article as Cicoria da radici di soncino, available in the United States from Seeds From Italy. Nice to know you can still grow the great-tasting heirloom Italian vegetables that inspired such a masterful painter.

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By Adrian Higgins  | January 31, 2011; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Groundwork  | Tags:  Groundwork; Adrian Higgins  
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