(Species: Pastinaca sativa - Family: Apiaceae)
Parsnip and its origins
The parsnip, originally found growing wild in Europe and Asia, was first cultivated for food in ancient times and was familiar to both the Greeks and the Romans. The Romans, in particular, believed they were an extremely good source of nutrition. The emperor Tiberius is said to have had parsnips specially brought to Rome from the Rhine valley.
The parsnip is similar in appearance to its relative the carrot, but its white or creamy-coloured flesh has a distinct buttery, spicy, nutty flavour.
In its wild form, this vegetable used to be a small root, but now in its cultivated form, it grows up to about 18 to 20cm in length with a diameter at its widest part of about 11cm.
It is very much a winter vegetable, both in terms of harvesting and the kind of dishes it is used in: roast meats, stews, soups. Frosts turn the vegetable's starch content into sugar, thus giving the root its attractive sweet taste. In fact, the colder the weather, the better the parsnip’s flavour.
How to plant: Parsnips
Parsnips are easy to grow and are happy in most well-drained soils, but they do need a good depth if they are to develop properly. The ground has to be free of stones and will grow particularly well in a light and sandy soil.
They like a sunny location and should, ideally, be grown in soil that has been previously treated with compost.
Seed can be sown outdoors in early spring. It is possible to sow earlier, in late winter, but spring sowing tends to give better results. Seeds should be sown about 1cm deep; the traditional method is to place three seeds together in a small clump, with about 15cm between each clump, and about 30cm between rows. Parsnip seeds take several weeks to germinate, so seedlings will take a while to appear. When they start to grow, the plants should be thinned out by removing two seedlings, leaving only the strongest.
Regular hoeing to keep weeds from establishing will help with the parsnips' development, but care should be taken not to damage plants with the hoe. Parsnips aren't phased by spells of dry weather and should only be watered sparingly if they show signs of wilt.
The only problem that may arise is if there are severe frosts that make the ground so hard that it is difficult to remove them. Otherwise, it is simple to lift the roots out of the soil, using a garden fork to loosen the surrounding area.
Animals, diseases and pests affecting the growth of peas
Parsnips can suffer from canker, signified by black or orange spots on the roots. This tends to affect early-sown parsnips and later sowings are usually unaffected. The canker is a fungal disease that thrives on poorly drained soil or where hoeing has damaged the root. Apart from good drainage, careful hoeing and later sowings there is no remedy and affected vegetables should be destroyed.
Parsnips, like carrots, can be attacked by carrot root fly: the fly's larvae eat the outer part of the root. The best way to keep the flies at bay is to cover the plants with fleece.
Did you know?
The shoots and leaves are harmful because they contain a chemical furnaocoumarin, which can cause a type of chemical burn on the skin, leading to redness and blisters. Gardeners should wear gloves when touching them, and if they do suffer a burn, it should be washed immediately, kept out of sunlight and a doctor should be contacted for advice.
Parsnips are more nutritious than carrots; they have a higher mineral and vitamin content.