Parsnip: All About This Plant That Looks A Bit Like Carrot

Parsnip (Pastinaca sativa) is a root vegetable that looks a bit like carrots. And believe me or not, but it also belongs to the same family, Apiaceae, which includes the above-mentioned plant carrot but also parsley! Parsnip is native to Eurasia and a root vegetable that’s a biennial plant, but we commonly grow it as an annual. If your not familiar with this plant, parsnip is also used the same way as carrot is. The long taproot that’s underground resembles a pale carrot, and that’s what we eat once the plant has matured.

But if you are already familiar with this fantastic plant and enjoy eating roasted parsnips, parsnip soups, curried parsnips, or parsnip pancakes, you might have wondered – what is the parsnip plant? Where does this root vegetable, that suits to so many amazing recipes, come from? Keep reading, and you’ll find out everything about parsnips that was yet a mystery to you.

Common NameParsnip
Botanical NamePastinaca Sativa
Plant TypeBiennial But Is Usually Grown As An Annual
Size (Fully Grown)A Height Of 1 – 3 Feet (30 – 91 cm) With A Width Of 6 – 12 Inches (15 – 30 cm)
Sun ExposurePrefers A Full Sun Or Partial Shade Growing Environment
Soil TypeOne That Is Well-draining, Fertile, And Free From Stones
Soil pHFrom 6.0 To 7.0
Flower ColorWhite, Yellow, Or Orange
U.S. Hardiness Zones2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, And 9
Native AreaEurasia

How Many Parsnip Varieties Are There?

Like carrots, parsnips have their fair share of varieties too. There are hundreds of parsnip cultivars globally, depending on the climatic preferences, flavor, and growing days. Here are some of the popular ones among home gardeners:

  1. Turga
  2. Lancer
  3. Albion
  4. Skirret
  5. Javelin
  6. Panache
  7. Andover
  8. Gladiator
  9. Halblange
  10. The Student
  11. White Spear
  12. Kral Russian
  13. Harris Model
  14. All American
  15. Hollow Crown
  16. Tender and True
  17. Cobham Marrow

Tracking The Origins Of Parsnips

The answer to what is the parsnip plant is incomplete without its long, rich history. Let’s track it back to its origins to understand how we came across these beautiful, nutritious root vegetables.

Parsnip has its roots in Eurasia, just like carrots. Ancient Greeks and Romans cultivated them for their sweet roots. But, there’s much confusion in written records between carrots and parsnips during the time.

The mayhem is understandable, considering the two plants look pretty much the same. Emperor Tiberius, from Rome, was especially fond of parsnips. He had parsnips imported from France each year because the region’s colder climate enhanced the flavor with extra sweetness.

The sweetness of the root made it a staple ingredient in medieval European kitchens. Sugar and honey were both costly and had to be imported. Parsnips were an excellent alternative to add sweetness to puddings, besides being served as a vegetable.

The plant quickly spread worldwide from Europe and West Asia because of its hardiness and ease of cultivation. Parsnip was brought to North America by the French colonists in the 16th century and the British colonists in the early 1600s. Unfortunately, their popularity was quickly overshadowed by potatoes in the 19th century as the primary source of starch.

In the late 19th century, the vegetable regained some of its lost fame by introducing the new cultivar “The Student” by James Buckman, Royal Agriculture College, England. With the improved quality through selective breeding, it became the most cultivated variety of the time.

Today, parsnips make a flavorful, nutritious addition to soups, curries, and stews. You can also boil and mash them like potatoes or roast them. You can cook these versatile vegetables in many ways to enjoy the rich flavors.

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What Does A Parsnip Look Like?

As we’ve already discussed, parsnip is a herbaceous biennial grown for its edible taproot. The plant produces vertical, branched stems with leaf clusters. It’s usually grown as an annual vegetable, and the roots are harvested before the plant gives any flowers. But if you allow it to grow for a second season, you’ll see flowering stems with umbels that give flower clusters.

Leaves

Vertical parsnip stems branch out into rosettes of leaves. The leaves are triangular and about 30 inches (about 76 cm) in length, but the upper leaves are shorter and stemless. They’re attached directly to the main stem, without any branches.

These rough, hairy leaves give off a pungent smell when crushed. So, as a head warning, they can cause allergic reactions upon contact with the skin and should be handled with gloves. But, they’re safe to eat once you cook them, along with the stems.

The Root

The root is what we’re after we’ve grown parsnips. The long, fleshy taproot has a creamy color and looks a lot like a pale carrot. Most varieties produce smooth, cylindrical taproots, although lateral roots growing out of a central taproot are also possible. The roots are usually 8 to 12 inches (about 20 to 30 cm) long at the time of harvest. They sweeten after exposure to frost but remember that leaving them too long in the ground can make the roots woody and fibrous.

Flowers

You’ll see the flowering stem during the second year of growth if you don’t harvest the roots on time. It can grow to about 5 feet (about 150 cm) tall with a couple of single-lobed leaves arranged alternately on the stalk.

The tiny yellow flowers are arranged in umbels, each umbel producing a bunch of small flower stalks. Each plant has hundreds of small flowers, each with five petals. The flowers give flat, oval fruits with seeds that mature somewhere in early July.

What Kind Of Climate Suits For Growing Parsnips?

Are you planning on making parsnip a part of your winter garden? What kind of climate do they grow best in, and what’s the best time to sow the seeds. Although they’re hardy vegetables, it will be helpful to know a little about the plant’s preferences before including them in your veggie garden.

What Temperature Is Best For Growing Parsnip?

Parsnips are cool-season crops that take about 120 days to grow before they’re ready to be harvested. They’ll need a temperature between 45°F to 75°F (about 7 to 24°C) to grow optimally during this time. The ideal temperature for seed germination is 64°F (approximately 18°C).

Although they’ll germinate in lower temperatures, it will take a long time, and it will make the seeds susceptible to rotting before they get a chance to sprout.

They can be sown directly in the ground 2 to 3 weeks before the last expected spring frost as soon as the soil is warm enough for germination. In mild-winter regions, they’re usually planted in autumn. The plant is very frost tolerant throughout its growing season, and the flavor even becomes sweeter when it gets exposed to frost.

The Climate

Most regions across the globe are suitable for growing these hardy root vegetables, so chances are they’ll thrive in your garden too. They’re even more straightforward to grow than their close relatives, carrots. They’re hardy to USDA zones 2 through 9 and prefer growing in full sun, though they’ll also tolerate partial shade.

Loamy and sandy soil is best for growing parsnips rather than clayey or stony soil, as it can break the roots. Till the garden bed to a depth of about 12 inches (about 30 cm) and amend it with well-aged compost at least two months in advance. But before you sow anything, make sure that the soil pH is between 6 to 7.

The plant loves moist soil and will appreciate a good drink every ten days or so. Watering should be reduced towards the end of the growing season to prevent the cracking of roots.

Is It Safe To Eat / Consume Parsnip?

We all know that vegetables like parsnip have many health benefits, but are these healthy root vegetables safe for everyone? Is there anything you need to be careful about when growing or consuming parsnips? Here’s some useful information on parsnips that you should know about:

Pregnant And Breastfeeding Women

Parsnips are a good source of folate, making them very healthy for pregnant women. But, it’s best to take them in moderation, especially if you are pregnant or still breastfeeding your baby.

Children

Parsnips make good first solids to start when babies reach 6 to 8 months of age. They’re an excellent source of nutrients for their healthy development.

People With Allergies

Some hypersensitive people may develop oral allergy syndrome or contact dermatitis after consuming or handling parsnips. Symptoms of contact dermatitis include rashes, itching, and cracked skin. Oral allergy syndrome results in a burning sensation affecting the lips, mouth, and throat.

People With Diabetes

I think you already know that people who have diabetes should avoid eating excess sugar. Thankfully parsnip doesn’t contain sugar, but it has a high glycemic index.

This basically means that the sugar parsnip contains will be quickly in your blood, but because it doesn’t hold that much sugar, the insulin spike won’t be that high.

In a sealed package, the people who have diabetes are on the safe side when it comes to eating parsnip.

Pets

The leaves and stems of the parsnip plant contain phototoxic chemicals that can blister the skin if the sap is exposed in the presence of sunlight. It can also result in skin discoloration, which can last for years.

So, if you have pets around the house, make sure they don’t go near parsnip plants’ foliage. As for the parsnip root, you can offer it to your pets in moderate amounts. They’ll love it!

Featured image credit – © pat – stock.adobe.com

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