Once one of the most important vegetables in the American diet, the Wild Parsnip (Pastinaca Sativa) has fallen increasingly into obscurity over the last hundred years. Home-cooking has been replaced by fast food and pre-packaged meals, while gardening has become more of a curiosity than a norm-and both of these trends have conspired against this sweet root vegetable. Parsnips store extremely well through the winter, which was of paramount importance in the days when produce was grown and stored locally. However, the advances in refrigeration and transportation made over the last century have undermined the parsnip’s popularity by making a greater variety of competing vegetables available in grocery stores.
But the parsnip is worth rediscovering. Not only is it a fantastic and versatile culinary vegetable, it is available for free in essentially limitless quantities in many areas of North America. You don’t have to till the soil, plant it, cultivate it, or weed it-all you have to do is go get it when it’s ready.
Most wild foods which share their name with a cultivated plant are significantly different from it. Wild plum, wild grape, wild cherry, wild rice, wild ginger, wild leek, and many others come to mind. The wild parsnip, however, is like wild asparagus in this respect: it is identical to its cultivated counterpart because it is descended directly from it, and nothing different needs to be said about its identification or use in the kitchen. If you know parsnips, you know wild parsnips.
Many rural folks, who know the wild parsnip only as a tenacious weed that cows don’t eat and humans avoid, are shocked to hear that the plant is edible, while I am shocked that more people do not take advantage of this free produce. A large portion of the readers will find this plant in their own fields or fence-rows, or in those of a friendly neighbor who would be glad to have them removed. Parsnip is one of the most abundant weeds of the farm country of the Midwest, Northeast, and parts of eastern Canada, and it is also found scattered in agricultural areas of the West. I commonly see patches covering an acre or more in a nearly pure stand, producing more than a family could want. If you like parsnips, you may never have to grow them again. And if you haven’t tried this vegetable, you might want to take advantage of this perennial opportunity.
Parsnips like rich, sandy loam or loamy sand. In other words, they like good, loose agricultural soils. They seem to be most abundant in hilly regions. I have personally seen them growing in great abundance in much of New York and Pennsylvania, northern New Jersey, the northern half of Ohio, most of Illinois, eastern Iowa, eastern Missouri, southeastern Minnesota, and southern Wisconsin. In these places, and surely many more which I have not seen, one is likely to spot wild parsnips along any rural road, often thousands of them per mile.
The best time to harvest parsnips is in fall, after they have had the full growing season to store starch in their root, or in early spring, before the plant’s top has started to grow and draw energy from the root. Like many other root vegetables, parsnips contain inulin, a non-digestible starch. Through fall and winter, the plant converts this inulin to simple sugars in preparation for growth the following spring. This process makes the root taste progressively sweeter and more digestible, so the later in the fall one harvests the roots, the better. In many parts of its range the ground does not freeze solid for any long period; in this case, the middle of winter is a great time to dig parsnips. In more northern areas, very early spring has traditionally been considered the time that parsnips taste best.
Wild parsnips do not differ appreciably from cultivated ones, except in that they tend to have a less symmetrical form-and this is due entirely to their growing conditions. They also tend to be slightly tougher, slightly sweeter, and slightly more aromatic than their garden counterparts, but this does not significantly affect their use in cooking.
Many people relish parsnips, while some find them disagreeable. To those who are unfamiliar with this vegetable, its flavor is somewhat like carrot, with a hint of banana and apple. The flesh is creamy-yellow and not firm or crisp like a carrot; it is somewhat fibrous when raw. The aroma of unwaxed parsnips is very strong. I once dug several buckets of parsnips just before Thanksgiving and brought them into my house due to a severe cold snap, hiding them in a corner of the cluttered kitchen. Several guests remarked, “It smells like bananas,” as soon as they walked into the house, shocked to discover that their “bananas” were actually a root vegetable.
After cleaning thoroughly and cutting out any pockets of dirt, peeling if necessary, parsnips are ready for culinary use. They are probably most commonly used in soups, and with good reason. Their sweet, distinct, aromatic flavor blends nicely with many other ingredients, and they soften dramatically after boiling. I almost always place parsnip chunks around a pot roast, along with onions, celery, rutabaga, potato, carrot, and mushrooms. You can also eat parsnips alone as a boiled vegetable, served with a little butter and salt. You can mash them like potatoes and serve in a similar fashion, or mix them with other mashed root vegetables such as potato and rutabaga. Or bake a halved squash with parsnip pieces, butter, and brown sugar filling the cavity, then mix and mash the two together before serving. Parsnips are delicious cut into strips and dipped in onion-ring batter, then deep fried.
Wild parsnip is distinguished from other species in the parsley family by its yellow flowers and its pinnately compound leaves that are divided once into more than five leaflets. Wild parsnip should be accurately identified before attempting any control measures. If identification of wild parsnip is in doubt, the plant’s identity should be confirmed by a knowledgeable individual and/or by consulting appropriate books.
There is a current impression that the roots of the Wild Parsnip are poisonous but, as Halsted has well said, it is probable that all casaes of poisoning by “Wild Parsnip” are due to the mistaking for it of other plants such as Water-Hemlock (Cicuta), which has large roots smelling like parsnips.
The true Wild Parsnip is a common weed of rubbish heaps, waste lands and rich roadsides, where it has been introduced by seed from the cultivated strains of the species.
When these wild plants grow in sufficiently rich soil outside the garden, there should be no reason why the roots should not be used by those who are absolutely certain of the identity of the plant.
Root – raw or cooked. When well grown, the cooked root has a very tender texture, though it is rather chewy raw.
It is best harvested after there have been some autumn frosts because it will have developed a sweeter flavor. The root is delicious baked, it can also be used in soups etc and can be added to cakes, pies and puddings.
Leaves and young shoots – cooked with other greens as a vegetable or added to soups etc. Used in early spring.
The seed is used as a condiment. Similar in taste to dill.
A tea made from the roots has been used in the treatment of women’s complaints. A poultice of the roots has been applied to inflammations and sores. The root contains xanthotoxin, which is used in the treatment of psoriasis and vitiligo. Xanthotoxin is the substance that causes photosensitivity.
The leaves and roots are used to make an insect spray. Roughly chop the leaves and roots, put them in a basin with enough water to cover, leave them overnight then strain and use as an insecticide against aphids and red spider mite.
Where Does Wild Parsnip (Pastinaca Sativa)?
The thick taproot of the wild parsnip is long, conic, and fleshy. Branching from the fleshy root is the light green, hollow, deeply-grooved stem that stands erect at 2-5 feet (0.6-1.5 meters) tall. Leaves are alternate, pinnately compound, and branched with saw-toothed edges. Each leaf has 5-15 ovate to oblong leaflets with variably toothed edges and deep lobes. The petiolate lower leaves are often 1.5 inches (3.8 cm) long, while upper leaves are sessile and much reduced. The small, 5-petaled, yellow flowers are arranged in 2-6 inch (5-15 cm) broad umbels at the top of slender stems and branches. Each compound flat umbel has 15-25 primary rays that contain yellow blossoms during the June-September flowering season. The blossoms give rise to a fruit termed a schizocarp that is broadly oval and 0.25 inch (6 mm) long. The abundant 0.25 inch (6 mm) mericarps (segments of the fruit) of this parsnip are flat, round, smooth, straw-colored, and have low ribs across them.