Plant Name: Apiaceae (Umbelliferae)
Plant Family: Apiaceae (Umbelliferae)
Scientific Name: Pastinaca sativa
Parsnip is believed to have escaped cultivation and grows in the wild. Parsnip looks somewhat like water hemlock, a highly poisonous root, so wild parsnips should not be collected for consumption except by those very skilled in identifying them.
Parsnips originated in the eastern Mediterranean area and the Caucasus. The Celts in central Europe had brought parsnips in from that area and from there it escaped into wild growth.
As a close relative of the carrot, the Romans may have referred to both parsnips and carrots as the same thing but there is no proof that they cultivated them, although the Romans apparently used wild parsnips for food. The Romans believed that the parsnip had great value for both medicinal and nutritional purposes.
Roman royalty, rich enough to afford to develop unusual cravings, developed a fondness for parsnips. Folklore says that the Emperor Tiberius especially liked them. He had them imported each year from along the Rhine in Germany.
By 1542, the modern parsnip was introduced in Germany and was soon a common, staple vegetable for the poorer people of Europe.
The German parsnips were long, and were introduced to England by the 1500s. They were brought to America by the first English colonists and were grown in Virginia in 1609 and were common in Massachusetts by 1629.
Much is said about the early colonists adopting the native food of the Americas, but exchanges between Indians and colonists took place. Native Americans began to grow parsnips soon after the English colonists arrived. In 1779 Gen. John Sullivan in his forays against the Iroquois destroyed stores of parsnips grown by these Indians in western New York.
Although the parsnips common to America are long, there is a round form that was described in France in 1824 - although today the round form is rarely grown.
About a hundred years ago the well-known variety called Student was originated at Cirencester, England, from seed of the wild parsnip obtained from the gardens of the Royal Agricultural College.
The parsnip is a hardy biennial. In spring there arises from each root a tall, much branched stalk that flowers and produces seeds. Its seeds are rather short-lived, requiring nearly ideal storage to preserve their vitality for more than a year.
Parsnips become sweeter after they are stored in a cool place for a few weeks. Like carrots, they may be stored in the ground and harvested as needed. They may freeze solid without serious injury provided they are left in place until they have thawed. Parsnips will not survive if they are pulled from the ground frozen and allowed to thaw rapidly in the open air.