Once one of the most important vegetables in the American diet, the parsnip 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 Home-cooking has been replaced by fast food and pre-packaged meals, while gardening has become more of a curiosity than a norm-and both of these trends have conspired against this sweet root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 fencerows, 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.
Parsnip is a member of the same family as carrots, dill, celery, and caraway. Like many taproot vegetables, it has a two-phase life cycle. In the first one to three years, it grows as a rosette-a clump of leaves emanating from the top of the root-and stores energy in the taproot. In the second phase, which occurs after the plant has stored a sufficient amount of energy to flower, it produces a tall flowering stalk. While the roots of plants in flower are too woody to eat, the flower stalks are a good indicator of a patch of parsnips because they are easier to spot than the rosettes, and plants in both stages of growth are usually found together.
Flowering parsnip stalks
Parsnip leaves are compound, with 9-13 irregularly shaped, ruffled, toothed leaflets found along the midrib. Each leaflet is one to three inches long, and the entire leaf is one to two feet. The leaflets are not all in the same plane as is typical with compound leaves; they are arranged perpendicular to the midrib.
The stalk of parsnip is also quite distinct, as it has narrow ridges running its length. The flowering stalks may be as much as seven feet tall and over an inch thick at the base, although three to five feet is typical. The small yellow flowers, blooming in June or early July, grow in clusters called compound umbels, with many stems radiating from the same point, like those of carrot, dill, and other plants in this family.
Although some wild members of the carrot family are very poisonous, none of these have leaves that resemble parsnip, nor do they have highly ridged stems. If you pay attention to the photos and description provided, you should have no trouble properly identifying this plant.
Finding and harvesting parsnips
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.
Digging parsnips is self-explanatory to those who know how to use a shovel. Remember to point the blade downward rather than angle it into the soil, otherwise you will cut off a large portion of the root. Wild parsnips are apt to be more difficult to dig than those in a garden, since they are mixed with competing weeds on untilled ground. Look for large specimens (as indicated by the size of the leaves in the rosette) and try to get them on the loosest soil you can find, for parsnips grown in rocky areas can be terribly misshapen and hard to clean and use. There are places that you may find wild parsnips where they will seem pitifully small due to their growing conditions; in other localities they will rival the largest of store-bought parsnips.
After harvesting the parsnips, I usually do not clean them unless they are going directly into the refrigerator or a meal. You can store them for a long time in a root cellar in a moist medium like sand, soil, or sawdust-or you can just keep them covered with dirt in a cool place in a covered pail for several weeks. The important thing is to keep them from drying out (hence the wax covering of most store-bought parsnips), and prevent them from freezing (although they are resistant to light and moderate frosts, since they must survive these in the soil).
The parsnip rash
If you get the juice of parsnip leaves or stalks on your skin when you are exposed to sunlight, a chemical reaction will occur that will give you a severe burn. The affected skin will turn purple and boils filled with clear liquid will form underneath it, as with a second-degree burn. The burn will be painful but not itchy; it will last a long while and leave scars and purple discoloration that may persist for years.
This rash can be caused by both wild and cultivated parsnips. It is usually caused by the second-year plants (the ones you don’t harvest) in early summer, because at this time the plants are tall and very juicy. People who get the rash are normally engaged in pulling weeds, weed-whacking, or walking through areas where the parsnip has just been mowed (therefore getting the rash on the calves and ankles). I got the rash as a child by playing, running shirtless through parsnip clumps on hot summer days. It is a most unpleasant experience. However, it very rarely affects those who harvest the plants for food-in fact, many gardeners who have grown the plant for years are unaware of the fact that it can cause such dermatitis.
During the time that parsnip is normally harvested, late fall and early spring, the leaves are generally dead and withered or very small. Even if they are green earlier in the fall, they exude little if any juice and the hot and sunny conditions required for the rash to strike do not prevail.
In all the years that I have gathered parsnip, I have never gotten a rash from doing so. However, it is good to learn to recognize this plant in order to avoid acquiring the rash when you are just going about your other business outdoors, like fishing, mowing, or hauling brush. Unlike poison ivy, all people react to parsnip, and there are a great number of cases of this rash misdiagnosed as poison ivy or poison oak.
Using the parsnip as food
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.
I often use grated parsnip in casserole. For this, select large, firm roots and grate them on the coarsest part of a cheese grater. Any remaining bits that do not go through the grater can be chopped fine and added to the grated material.
There are hundreds of parsnip recipes to be found in traditional cookbooks, and any of them will work with wild parsnips as well.
Ever since it escaped from colonial gardens hundreds of years ago, the wild parsnip has been waiting patiently to be noticed by those who let it loose. If you have parsnips growing as a weed on your farm or homestead, it may be time to stop cursing and start collecting it.
Samuel Thayer is a wild food expert and avid forager from northern Wisconsin. He is the author of The Forager’s Harvest: A Guide to Identifying, Harvesting, and Preparing Edible Wild Plants, available through COUNTRYSIDE & SMALL STOCK JOURNAL, or www.foragersharvest.com.