Pastinaca sativa – pastura in Latin means food and sativa means cultivated.
The parsnip we know today evolved from the wild parsnip which is still growing in Europe and Asia. It was a staple in the middle ages, but fell into disuse with the rising popularity of the potato. It is naturalised in New Zealand.
Parsnip is a root vegetable grown for its large, creamywhite roots. It’s closely related to parsley and carrots which all belong to the flowering plant family Apiaceae.
Plant seeds in autumn in warm climates, and in spring in cooler climates. Successful germination relies heavily on the freshness of the seed and the most success will occur if you use seed saved from the previous season. Seed which is older than 12 months old is likely to have a poor germination rate.
Direct sow the seed in trenches at depth of between half- and one-centimetre. Like carrots, parsnips prefer a sandy and loamy soil. Parsnips can take up to four weeks to germinate so make sure you keep the beds evenly moist during the germination period, but not wet.
As they germinate and grow, thin out regularly to ensure each plant has enough growing space. Pinch off the top of the plant to limit root disturbance.
Saving The Seed
Parsnip is considered biennial in cold climates. Different varieties will cross with one another, and with wild parsnip. The flowers and seeds are produced in the spring of the second year on a grooved and hollowed branching stem. The tiny flowers, borne on large spreading umbels, are fertilised with the help of insects. The late central umbel is considered the best for seed production. When most of the seed is brown, cut the plants near the base or lift the whole plant and dry further over a fabric or paper bag to catch any that fall. The seeds are flat, thin and quite large because of their wing-like structure. Harvest should not be delayed as the seed will drop readily. Only a little sieving in a colander is needed to get rid of fine dust and some small sticks.
Dry for a few weeks in a paper bag before storing in a cool, dark place in an airtight container. The seeds of a parsnip will really only be viable until the next growing season. The seeds of different varieties may vary in shape, colour and size according to varieties. There are 200 seeds to the gram.
The English have retained the use of parsnips more so than other nationalities. A wonderful soup of creamed parsnip can be made and there’s a great parsnip wine. Bake them, or simply steam them to an al dente texture before sauteing them gently in butter until golden brown. In France, parsnips were traditionally only grown for fodder for draught horses but regained popularity through gardeners who also love to cook. Parsnips are widely regarded to aid the relief of stomach disorders. But the juice from a parsnip’s green stems and leaves may cause skin irritation to some people.
On The Lookout
Guernsey and Large Jersey parsnips were bred in the Channel Islands but have since spread elsewhere. For shallow soils, use Oxheart which has a short and stout root. Melbourne Whiteskin is preferred in Australian market gardens, while Hollow Ground is another popular variety. In New Zealand, Freshman, which has a long thin root, is used when an early crop is needed.
Tender and True, named after a popular song in the 19th century, is still grown today for its heavily tapered roots, fine-grained flesh and its sweetness.