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(Pastinaca sativa)

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Parsnips, though one of the most commonly grown root crops, are hardly a great vegetable, being extraordinarily bland, particularly compared with such roots as scorzonera, parsley root, and chervil root (or even the plain old carrot); indeed, we do not bother with them, but include this page for those who disagree with our tastes. Nonetheless, there is a flourishing literature on parsnip cultivars. Though there are white and yellow parsnips, the true division is by shape, and tripartate, so: bulbous (stocky with round “shoulders”); wedge (longer than bulbous, with broad “shoulders”); and bayonet (long and narrow—much the commonest type).

There are literally hundreds of cultivars, many unknown and unavailable to home gardeners. Benjamin Watson’s book Taylor’s Guide to Heirloom Vegetables (don’t be confused by the “Taylor’s” in the title) says that the cultivar Student is considered by some to be the same as “Hollow Crown” (a common catalogue offering) but by others to be a distinct and superior strain—one seedsman (a nonprofit organization, so more credible than a strictly commercial one) says it has the “most delicious, mellow flavor of any parsnip we’ve tried.” Other sources concur. Regrettably, we see that this type seems to have again disappeared from U.S. seedsmen’s offerings; lacking that, probably your next-best choice is the half-long Cobham Improved Marrow variety—scarce but findable.


Beware: parsnip seeds are notoriously short-lived. If you aren’t saving you own seed annually, don’t try to be cheap and use last season’s leftovers—get fresh seed every year.


Parsnips are normally planted out direct. The soil temperature for optimum germination is pretty high, though they are viable down to rather cool temperatures. In our climate, most sources agree that you can sow from “early spring” till as late as mid-July. Now parsnips, like most roots (carrots are the notable exception) are slow-growing, with 120 days as a typical “days to maturity” figure. They are much improved by exposure to at least one good frost, so we don’t want them ready too soon, lest they be overlarge and woody by the first frost; if we assume a first frost sometime in early to mid-October, we’ll usually have one or more light ones well before then), we work back to a planting in mid-June. That is consonant with what several sources say for parsnips in this sort of climate.

The Bed

Parsnips can tolerate any sort of soil, but—as we noted above—they, and all “roots”, do vastly better on soil that is very loose and friable, else they get stunted, show forked roots, and generally sit in their corners sucking lemons and sulking. For best results, dig your bed so as to loosen the soil as deeply as you can possibly manage, and remove all rocks and as many pebbles as possible, working in organic matter or even straight sand to make it good and loose. They like the more or less standard garden-soil pH of 6.5 to 6.8, or even a little lower, maybe 6.3.

It is also wise to not use much manure in roots beds—and absolutely never any that is not thoroughly composted—or you’ll have forked roots galore. Parsnips need good sun exposure. Like almost all roots, they are not frost-sensitive.

(It is wise to prepare one whole bed that way, for all your root crops—carrots, scorzonera, root parsley, and the like; in fact, you can do two beds that way, and alternate your root crops with anything else—for us, bush beans—that ought not to go in the same ground two years running.)

Planting Out

Parsnip seeds have an erratic and low germination rate even under optimum conditions; and in the cold, damp soils of early spring, germination is even more of a problem. It is wise to plant at least a couple of seeds at each point where a plant is wanted (you can’t save them year to year anyway), then see what emerges and thin—if necessary—to the most vigorous seedling when they look like they’re starting to compete. To reduce germination time, before planting put your seeds in fairly warm (but not hot, lest you cook them) water, then let the water cool quickly; leave the seeds in the water—kept lukewarm—for about 12 hours before planting them. Parsnips can be spaced at 4 inches, especially in a deep-dug or raised bed; some sources say 3 inches, but if you want good-sized roots, it’s best not to push the spacing too tight.

(Some gardeners like to treat parsnip seeds as carrot seeds are often treated: mix in a radish seed or two at every sowing spot, so the earlier, more aggressive radish seedling can break the surface for the parsnip—or carrot—seedling, then pull the radish stem when the later root-crop seedling emerges; we don’t like putting radishes, a crucifer, in any place that is not a part of that season’s crucifer beds in a rotation scheme.)


Parsnips will take anywhere from two up to fully four weeks to germinate, so be patient.

Growing is routine for root crops: keep them watered lightly but frequently, and cultivate thoroughly but carefully and shallowly.

Also as with most root crops, parsnips famously improve notably in taste after at least one and preferably a few frosts (it has to do with temperature-triggered conversion of starches to sugars). They can be dug up as wanted and needed after the first frost or two; they can even stand in the garden right through the winter. They should not be dug before they have been through at least one good frost.

Note! Parsnips, when handled by bare flesh, can cause serious rashes. We quote an experienced gardener: Some people can develop a poison-ivy type rash from exposure to parsnip sap and essential oils when the exposure happens in bright light (like on a sunny day). It is an interreaction between chemicals in the sap and the sunlight. So, when you weed or work with parsnips, I’d suggest doing it early or late in the day, or when heavily overcast, wear long sleeves, and wash well afterwards. I got big, red, fluid filled blisters that turned itchy afterwards. Luckily, they didn’t spread like poison ivy, and went away in about 2 or 3 days. To the wise, but a word suffices…


Relevant Links

Besides any links presented above on this page, the following ought to be especially helpful.

Odds and Ends


Parsnips can also be propagated by cutting off the very tops of newly harvested plants, waiting for them to sprout, then re-planting them.


Parsnips are reported to have originated in the Mediterranean area, where they were first domesticated milennia ago. The Greeks were quite fond of them; the Romans liked them as dessert, preparing them as little cakes served with fruit and honey (Tiberius imported them from France and Germany to his domicile on Capri).

In the Middle Ages, European babies were given parsnip roots as pacifiers. By the 16th century, parsnips were being cultivated in Germany, England, and soon thereafter in the American colonies (where the colonists used them for puddings, bread, casseroles, stews, purees, pies, and even wine)—even the native Americans soon took to growing and storing them for winter eating.

Considering how minor a role they have in today’s cuisine, it is remarkable to recall that till the spreading popularity of the newly arrived American potato in the 18th century, parsnips were perhaps the premier vegetable in European cookery. The potato, however, soon pulled ahead of them, and eventually they receded almost completely from the public consciousness.


Parsnips are apparently too boring for there to be any amusing little facts about them. Sorry.

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