In praise of parsnips

You can eat them, make wine with them, or rely on their medieval medicinal properties


I harvested an armful of parsnips from the garden earlier this week. Freshly pulled from the cold soil, their long pale roots quickly filled the still winter air with their earthy scent.

Later that evening, we savoured the taste of their roasted, sweet, nutty flesh and I remembered the spring day last year when I sowed them. Early May. Just a few pinches of papery seeds as light as featherdown, sown along two drills spaced 30 centimetres apart.

Afterwards, the long wait for them to germinate. Each day that careful scrutiny of the bare soil, waiting to spot the first pale green seedlings break through the earth. Then that familiar burst of pleasure when they finally did so, almost a month to the day they’d been sown.

One sunny June morning, I thinned them out to a spacing of 10 centimetres between each seedling. After that, other than an occasional very gentle scuffle of the soil, I pretty much left them alone. Not that they minded. Few vegetables are as undemanding as parsnips.

Give them a deep, stone-free, well-drained soil, ideally a little on the alkaline side, and these reliable workhorses of the kitchen garden will quietly get on with things with the minimum amount of fuss. Nor, once established, do they mind the cold one whit. Left in the ground over winter, their tapering ivory roots remain unscathed by frosts. In fact, those low temperatures only improve the flavour by spurring the plant to convert its starches into sugar.

Pests and diseases? There are only two worth worrying about. One is canker, a damaging fungal disease which causes black or rust-brown discolouring of the root. Unsightly, yes, but often the damaged parts can be cut away and the rest eaten. In badly affected crops, however, the flesh splits and rots.

This disease is more prevalent in gardens with poorly drained, acid soil, and on crops sown in early spring. Improving drainage, adding a small amount of lime to the soil and delaying sowing until late April/early May are three ways to reduce the likelihood of the crop being affected. A fourth is to practise careful crop rotation (the disease builds up in the soil),while a fifth is to choose a variety with high canker resistance, such as ‘Gladiator’, ‘Javelin’, ‘Countess’ or ‘White Gem’.

Parsnips are a member of the same family as carrots. If left in the ground, they burst into fresh growth in spring, eventually producing tall umbelliferous flowers of such lacy, frothy beauty that they’d look entirely at home in a flower bed. Which is exactly how they were used by the British garden designer Cleve West in the Best in Show garden he designed for Chelsea a few years ago.

In a good summer, if the variety is one of the older, non-F1 types such as ‘Tender and True’or ‘White Gem’, you can also collect the seed. But a gentle word of warning. Just as for many other members of this plant family(including giant hogweed), handling the foliage of the plant in bright sunshine can, in a small but vulnerable percentage of the population, cause a painful skin condition known as phytophotodermatitis, resulting in blistering of the skin.

Another word of warning. Just like carrots, parsnips are attractive to carrot fly. This pest won’t do as much damage to your parsnip crop as it would to your carrots, but the small holes that the larvae tunnel into the parsnip’s fleshy shoulders can also act as an entry point for canker. Infested parsnips left in the ground until spring can also act as a host, allowing the carrot fly grubs to overwinter in your garden before hatching out in time to attack your young carrot seedlings.

To prevent this happening, you can grow parsnips under an insect-protective mesh such as Bionet, which will stop the carrot fly from laying its eggs.

In the meantime, make sure to harvest the last of your parsnips before winter ends. You can roast them, bake them, curry them, fry them, cream them, even make wine from them. And remember that this hearty root vegetable is also well known for its medicinal and curative properties.

In Jane Grigson’s Vegetable Book, the late food writer describes how “medieval doctors credited parsnips with several virtues. They kept off adders, they cured toothache, they gave men an appetite for women, they reduced swollen testicles, they were eaten for stomach ache and the milk they were boiled in was given against dysentery”.

Now you know...

Diary Dates
Saturday, February 1st: Ballykealey Manor, near Altamont, Co Carlow. Snowdrop Gala and Other Spring Treasures, with guest speakers Richard Hobbs, John Massey of Ashwood Nurseries and Paul Cutler. Rare bulbs and plants for sale on the day from Ashwood Nurseries, Avon Bulbs, Hugh Nunn/Harvingtons and others. Cost, €70, includes lunch, tour of Altamont gardens. To book: Hester Forde of Coosheen Gardens (086-8654972) or Rober Miller of Altamont Plant Sales (087-9822135).
Saturday, February 15th: A Celebration and Naming of Irish Snowdrops, Bellefield House, Shinrone, Co Offaly, chaired by Helen Dillon with guest speakers Assumpta Broomfield, planthunter Tom Mitchell of Evolution Plants and Paul Smyth, and visits to Shinrone Church, Bellefield Gardens and Milltown House. Cost, €55, includes lunch. To book: Angela Jupe (086-6002180).

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