The sweet, earthy flavor of parsnips is essential in hearty root vegetable dishes for fall and winter meals. And parsnips fresh from your garden are a marked improvement on the limp, wax-coated ones often found at the grocery store.
The edible part of parsnip is the long white taproot, which is topped with a vigorous tuft of deeply cut, bright green leaves. For garden success, start with fresh seeds (parsnip seeds lose viability after just a year or so) and deeply worked garden soil that allows development of long, unforked roots.
Parsnips need a long growing season but they’re frost-tolerant so they can stay in the garden for late fall harvest. They’ll even last until spring in many regions!
Common name: Parsnip
Botanical name: Pastinaca sativa
Plant type: Biennial grown as an annual vegetable
Height: 24 to 30 inches
• Sun: Full sun
• Soil: Sandy loam
• Moisture: Evenly moist but well-drained
• Mulch: 1 or 2 inches of fine organic mulch (straw, marsh hay, grass clippings)
• Pruning: None
• Fertilizer: Incorporate compost before planting or apply soluble fertilizer monthly
Pests and diseases
• Carrot fly maggots may chew on roots
• Cultivars include Lancer, Javelin, All-American, Hollow Crown, Harris Model and Andover.
• Harvest parsnips by carefully digging up the entire plant. Cut off leaves, wash roots and store in the refrigerator. They’ll keep for several months.
• Below-freezing temperatures convert some starches to sugar in parsnip roots, so late-harvested parsnips are often especially sweet.
• Parsnip foliage has been reported to cause skin burns like wild parsnip foliage can, but this reaction is far more likely when parsnip plants are in bloom. (See the photo below.) Since garden parsnips are harvested before they bloom, burns are unlikely to be an issue.
All in the family
• Parsnip is a member of the carrot family (Apiaceae). The old name for this family is Umbelliferae, which refers to the family’s U-shaped flower heads called umbels.
• Garden parsnips are the cultivated form of wild parsnip, a common weed in parts of the country.
• Other common garden vegetables and herbs in the carrot family include celery, fennel, dill, parsley and cilantro.
Where to buy
• Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, rareseeds.com
• Johnny’s Selected Seeds, johnnyseeds.com
• Territorial Seed Co., territorialseed.com
Avoid skin contact with wild or culivated parsnip blossoms (above), which look a bit like dill flowers.