By Dr. Mercola
Despite being in the same vegetable family, parsnips don’t get nearly as much attention as carrots. For that reason, at least one source refers to parsnips as “the neglected relative of the carrot.”1 Due to the fact their popularity has been somewhat supplanted by the potato since the 18th century, you may have trouble finding parsnips in your local grocery store. Given its unique earthy taste and beneficial levels of potassium and folate, you might want to try your hand at growing this pale carrot cousin in your vegetable garden this year.
Parsnip Particulars: Interesting Facts About This Carrot Cousin
As a member of the Apiaceae family, parsnips (Pastinaca sativa) make their home among vegetables like carrots and celery, as well as aromatic herbs such as coriander, cumin, dill, fennel and parsley. They are native to the Mediterranean region and have been a popular food in Europe dating back to at least the ancient Romans, who were said to use it as both a food and a medicine.
Colonial settlers brought parsnips to America from England. The popularity of the parsnip began to decline in the 18th century due to increasing cultivation of a different root vegetable: the potato. Like carrots, parsnips have a hint of sweetness and a comparable bitterness when they are eaten with the skin. As for taste, some suggest raw parsnips taste like a cross between a carrot and a potato.
The smell of parsnips is said to be reminiscent of fresh parsley. As a hardy, cool-season crop, parsnips are characterized by long taproots and cream-colored skin and flesh. They are similar to a carrot in size and shape. For maximum sweetness, it is best to wait to harvest them until after the first frost. If you live in an area with mild winters, you can provide a heavy layer of mulch around your plants and wait to harvest your parsnips after the ground thaws in the spring.
Five Steps to Growing Parsnips
Although parsnips are biennials, they are most commonly grown as annuals. If summers in your area are short and mild, it’s best to plant parsnips in late spring, a week or two after the last frost. In all other areas, you’ll want to delay planting until early summer. For best results, sow your seeds about four months before your first fall frost. Of the utmost importance for growing success, you must use fresh parsnip seeds every year. Do not save any leftover seeds because they will not germinate in subsequent years. Below are five easy steps for growing parsnips:2,3,4,5
1. Seeds: As a root vegetable, parsnips are best planted from seed and you can sow them as soon as soil temperatures are consistently in the 50 to 54 degrees F (10 to 12 degrees C) range.
Use your finger or a trowel to create a small trench and, because parsnips are poor germinators, you’ll want to sow two seeds every inch at a depth of about one-half inch. Space your rows 18 to 24 inches apart.
2. Soil: Parsnips prefer a well-draining soil with a pH in the slightly acidic to neutral range of 6.0 to 7.0. Loose, fertile soil that is free of hard clods and stones is best. Prior to planting, loosen the soil to a depth of 12 to 15 inches and mix in a 2- to 4-inch layer of compost. Never use fresh manure on root crops because it will cause the roots to fork and distort.
3. Sun: Parsnips will do best in full sun to partial shade.
4. Thinning: Once your parsnips develop at least two true leaves, you can thin them to 3 to 6 inches apart to give their taproots plenty of room to grow. Parsnips mature in about 16 weeks so you’ll need to exercise patience while you wait for the first green sprouts to appear above the soil line.
5. Water: Water the soil immediately after planting to encourage germination. Provide at least 1 inch of water per week early on to promote strong taproot development and quick growth. As the plants mature, water only during very dry periods to encourage the roots to grow deeper in search of moisture.
You’ll want to keep your garden bed free of weeds so they won’t be competing with your parsnips for water and soil nutrients. When weeding around parsnip plants, take care you don’t damage their roots, especially if you use a hoe. For that reason, regular hand weeding may be best. In terms of readying your seeds for planting, Mother Earth News suggests the following tips to speed the germination of parsnip seeds:6
- About a week before planting, place your parsnip seeds on a wet paper towel and enclose them in an airtight container
- Maintain the seeds in the container for five days at room temperature
- On day six and beyond, check for the emergence of pale white sprouts indicating germination
- Plant the seeds as soon as the first seeds have begun to germinate
Parsnip Varieties You May Want to Try
Below are some recommended varieties (with days to maturity) of parsnips you may want to try:7,8
All American (120 to 130 days): Tapered 10- to 12-inch white-skinned taproots with high sugar content; stores well
Harris Model (100 to 120 days): Smooth, white tapered root averaging 10 inches
Andover (120 days): Slim, 12- to 14-inch taproots with raised crowns and vigorous tops; stores for four to six months
Hollow Crown (105 days): Mild honey flavor and uniform taproots
Cobham Improved (120 days): English variety that produces smooth-skinned, 8-inch roots with high sugar content
Javelin (120 days): Hybrid with slim, smooth, tapered roots
Gladiator (120 days): Hybrid with smooth white skin and vigorous tops; stores for four to five months
The Student (180 days): Hollow-crowned 15- to 30-inch taproots boasting a mild nuttiness
Parsnip Pests and Problems
With respect to potential parsnip pests and problems, garden experts offer the following helpful information to ensure a healthy crop:9,10
Carrot fly: These critters lay their eggs on the soil near parsnip plants and their larvae burrow into the roots. To reduce your risk of carrot fly, don’t plant parsnips near carrots or celery, but do plant them near onions.
Canker: This disease, which is caused by various fungi, produces dark patches on the taproot’s shoulders.
Canker spores are found in the soil and infect injured roots. To combat canker, try raising your soil pH closer to 7.0.
Celery fly: If the leaves on the tops of your parsnips shrivel and get small brown blisters, you’ve probably got celery fly. Fortunately, this pest won’t harm parsnip roots, but you’ll have to remove the leaves to get rid of the maggots.
Leaf spot: These fungal-induced, small brown spots that appear on parsnip leaves fortunately will not affect the roots. You can minimize leaf spot damage by thinning your rows to allow more air circulation and also allowing the leaves to dry out between periods of watering.
Wireworms: This soil-dwelling pest makes small holes in the ground where it can attack your germinating seeds and parsnip taproots. If infestations are heavy, you may need to reseed.
Powdery mildew: This disease state, characterized by a powdery white coating on parsnip leaves, is promoted by warm, humid conditions.
You can prevent powdery mildew by increasing the spacing between plants, rotating your crops and cleaning up dead plant material to prevent future spore growth.
Harvesting Parsnips: A Lesson in Patience
At maturity, most parsnip taproots will be 8 to 12 inches long, with a diameter of 1.5 to 2 inches. Be sure to mark down the date you planted them so you will know the general time frame during which they will be ready to harvest. As noted by Gardening Know How, you’ll need to be patient when waiting to harvest parsnips because:11
- Parsnips take, on average, 120 days to mature
- Their unique taste emerges with a touch of frost
- Some gardeners like to leave parsnips in the ground over winter
Whenever you plan to harvest them, you’ll need to do so carefully because the taproots can be easily broken or damaged during removal, which means they won’t store well. Due to the depth of their roots, your best strategy for removing parsnips from the ground is to use a small spade or garden fork. Proceed cautiously so as to prevent damage to nearby roots. For better sight lines while digging, some recommend trimming the foliage down to about 1 inch above the taproot.
How to Eat Parsnips
Before cooking or serving parsnips, make sure you clean them thoroughly by scrubbing the skin with a vegetable brush under running water. Keep in mind that parsnips — similar to apples — oxidize when exposed to air. If you are cutting parsnips but won’t use them right away, it’s best to soak them in water with a little bit of lemon juice to prevent browning.12
If you are unfamiliar with parsnips and wonder how you might use them, check out my Roasted Root Vegetables recipe, where they pair up nicely with beets, onions and turnips. Similar to other root vegetables, parsnips add heartiness and beneficial nutrients to your meals. Below are some additional suggestions on how to use this tasty vegetable:
- Add parsnips to casseroles, side dishes, soups and stews
- Try parsnips on salads or cut them into sticks and use them with your favorite healthy dip
- You can bake, broil, mash and puree parsnips, or roast them in coconut oil
- Incorporate parsnips into your fermented vegetables recipe
- Given their similarity to carrots, you may find dill, garlic, nutmeg and parsley well suited for seasoning parsnips
While you will most certainly enjoy eating fresh parsnips, you may also want to store some. Leftover parsnips can be refrigerated for up to five days. In terms of storing parsnips, parsnip fans suggest:13,14
- Removing all greens prior to storage; you may want to wear gloves when doing this because the leaves release a skin-irritating sap when exposed to UV rays15,16
- Wrapping a paper towel around unwashed parsnips and placing them inside a perforated plastic bag
- Storing fresh, bagged parsnips in your refrigerator, where they will keep for at least two weeks
- Placing blanched parsnips in well-sealed containers and storing them in your freezer, where they will last for eight to 10 months
- Freezing parsnip puree, which makes a great baby food and when fully cooked can be maintained in your freezer for up to 10 months
Alternatively, you can store parsnips in your garage or a root cellar, where under ideal conditions they will keep for four to six months. Do not store them near apples or pears because those fruits emit a natural gas that will cause parsnips to become bitter. Also, as mentioned, you can leave them in the ground over winter under a heavy layer of mulch. Harvest to Table provides details on in-ground storage:17
“Keep the soil at 35 to 40 degrees F (2 to 4 degrees C) by putting a 10- to 12-inch-thick layer of leaves, hay or straw mulch over the rows; extend the mulch on both sides of each row by another 18 inches or more. This should protect roots even beneath 2 feet of snow. Dig roots through the winter as needed. If parsnips stay in the ground all winter, harvest them before new top growth starts in spring.”
Why Parsnips Are Good for You
Parsnips are a low-calorie vegetable — a 3.5-ounce, or 100-gram (g), serving contains just 75 calories. While the leaves are most often discarded and considered by some to be inedible, the taproot portion is highly nutritious. Parsnip roots are particularly rich in potassium, with 375 milligrams (mg) per 100 g, and 67 micrograms of folate (vitamin B-9) per 100 g serving. They also contain a good amount of vitamins C, E and K, as well as beneficial stores of calcium, iron, manganese, magnesium, phosphorus and zinc.
Both potassium and folate have been shown to boost your cardiovascular health.18,19 Vitamins C and E are important antioxidants that prevent cell damage caused by free radicals, whereas vitamin K and manganese promote bone health. You can retain more of the vitamins and minerals by lightly peeling your parsnips or cooking them whole. With 5 g of fiber per serving, which includes both soluble and insoluble types, parsnips can help prevent constipation and promote healthy blood cholesterol levels.
|Amt. Per |
|% Daily |
|Calories from Fat||3|
|Total Fat||0 g||0%|
|Saturated Fat||0 g||0%|
|Total Carbohydrates||18 g||6%|
|Dietary Fiber||5 g||20%|
|Vitamin A 0%||Vitamin C||28%|
*Percent Daily Values are based on a 2,000 calorie diet. Your daily values may be higher or lower depending on your calorie needs. Regardless of how you plan to eat them, for the health benefits alone, you won’t regret adding parsnips to your vegetable garden this year. Even if they are a bit persnickety and require a greater measure of patience than other vegetables, why not try your hand at growing parsnips?