(Pastinaca sativa ssp. sativa— Family Umbelliferae)
The wild parsnip
is virtually inedible and could be poisonous if tried.
However, cultivation has produced a sweet, aromatic root that looks much like a carrot, only it is a tan colour with white flesh.
The English name comes through the French, pastinaca, with the “nip”, indicating that it was like a turnip. In medieval Europe, sugar was rare and honey expensive. Moreover, the starchy potato had not yet arrived; so the only alternative was with the sweet, starchy parsnip, which became doubly useful. As the sugar supply increased and the potato made its appearance in the middle of the 18th century, the popularity of the parsnip began to wane.
Parsnips were introduced into North America by early settlers. They were grown in Virginia by 1609, and were soon accepted by the American Indians.
Parsnips were used as a sweetener until the development of the sugar beet in the 19th century. The juices were evaporated, and the brown residue was used as honey.
In Italy, pigs bred for the best-quality Parma ham are still fed on parsnips.
Wild parsnip is a name sometimes given for an unrelated root (Cymopterus montanus), eaten by Indians of the southwest US and Mexico, where it is called gamote.
The roots are peeled, baked, and ground into a meal.
This ancient vegetable is thought to have originated around the eastern Mediterranean. Exactly when it was introduced into cultivation is uncertain as references to parsnips and carrots seem interchangeable in Greek and Roman literature.
Pliny used the word “pastinaca” in the 1st century when referring to both. Tiberius Caesar was said to have imported parsnips from Germany, where they flourished along the Rhine. It is possible that the Celts brought them back from their forays to the east long before that.
In the Middle Ages, the roots were valued medicinally for treating such diverse problems as toothaches, swollen testicles, and stomache aches. In 16th century Europe, parsnips were used as animal fodder.
The country name of ‘madneps’ or ‘madde neaps’ reflects the fear that delirium and madness would be brought on by eating these roots.
Parsnips have a mild celery-like fragrance and a sweet nutty flavour, which is best if allowed to stay in the ground until after the first frost. This causes the starches to covert to sugars.
A fresh one will have a buttery-soft texture when cooked, but an old parsnip will be fibrous and bitter. The whiter ones tend to be the most tender, and should be firm like a carrot.
Like carrots, parsnips will keep for weeks if properly stored in a very cool place. They can be also be cooked like carrots and are particularly good when stir fried in a little butter and honey.
Also like carrots, parsnips should be scrubbed rather than peeled; but unlike the carrot, overcooking can turn them to mush.
In 17th century England, there were recipes recorded for parsnip bread and delicate parsnip cakes, which were often eaten with salt fish as a staple during Lent.
Parsnips are a good source of fiber, folate, magnesium, potassium, Vitamins C and E, calcium, iron, thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, and B6. Its colour is a clue to the fact that it does not contain any beta carotene.
They are also a high fiber food, offering more than that found in many ready-to-eat cereals – and more nutrients.
Parsnips can be low in calories, but this depends on how they are cooked.
Parsnips are a traditional American vegetable; but it is also popular in England, France, Scandinavia, Hungary, and Holland, and harvested throughout the fall and winter.
There are varying shapes of parsnips: bulbous types are stocky with rounded shoulders; wedge types are broad and long; and bayonet types are long and narrow.
Parsnips do well when planted with rapidly germinating radishes and lettuces between the rows or alongside peas and carrots. If a few are left to flower the following year, they will attract beneficial insects; but crops do need to be rotated.
Some varieties include the following:
- Alba (wedge and bayonet)
- All American (wedge)
- Avonresister (bulbous)
- Cobham Improved Marrow (wedge)
- Exhibition Long (extra long)
- Gladiator (large, well-shaped with a good flavour)
- Hollow Crown (very tender and mild)
- Javeling (wedge or bayonet)
- New White Skin (wedge and pure white skin)
- Student (very long originated around 1810 from a wild parnip found on the grounds of the Royal Agricultural College in Cirencester, England)
- Tender and True (old variety, tender and sweet with very little core)
- White Gem (wedge to bulbous)
Hamburg parsley, parsley root, root parsley, turnip-rooted parsley, parsnip-rooted parsley, Dutch parsley, Holland parsley
(Petroselinum crispum var. tuberosum or radicosum – Family Umbelliferae [Apiciae])
Hamburg parsley originated in Germany in the 16th century, grown more for its roots than for the typical parsley leaf.
These long tapering roots look and taste very much like parsnips, but also somewhat like celeriac.
The finely cut, dark green leaves
resemble parsley, but are coarser.
The plant requires a longer growing season in order to fully develop the root.
Both the root and the leaves can be eaten either raw or cooked, but should not be eaten in large amounts by those with kidney problems or by pregnant women.
Popular in Central Europe and in Germany, it is one of the several vegetables and herbs known as soup greens or “Suppengrun”. Introduced from Holland to England in the 18th century, this versatile vegetable enjoyed only a relatively brief period of popularity, but still can be found.
The leaves are a good source of vitamins A and C and contain similar elements as those in the true parsley leaf. It is used to reduce inflammation and for such urological conditions as cystitis and kidney stones. It is also beneficial for indigestion, arthritis, and rheumatism.
After childbirth, the leaves encourage lactation, and the roots and seeds are used to promote uterine contractions. As with parsley, the hamburg parsley is used as a breath freshener that is powerful enough to counter the effects of garlic.