Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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Nature Bulletin No. 413-A   April 3, 1971
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
George W. Dunne, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

In those not-so-good old days, the horse-and-buggy days when electric lights, telephones and bathrooms were newfangled luxuries enjoyed only by rich city folks, one of our staple root vegetables in wintertime was the Parsnip. They were allowed to stay in the ground until very late in autumn, or even midwinter, which changed their starches to sugar. Then, parboiled, sliced and fried in butter, they had their own never-to- be forgotten flavor.

The parsnip is a native of southern Europe and has never been grown commercially as much as other root vegetables in this country. The deep tapering ivory-colored roots are expensive to harvest and, for good flavor, must be stored for 2 or 3 weeks in a near-freezing temperature. Nowadays they are coated with paraffin wax, before shipping, to preserve their freshness. Grown in rich moist soil, the root may be as much as 4 inches in diameter at the top and 20 inches long, with thread-like rootlets that penetrate much farther.

The garden parsnip does not bloom until the second year when, if its root has been left in the ground, it produces flat-topped umbrella-like clusters, or umbels, of little yellow flowers. It has escaped from cultivation and become a common tall weed along roadsides or in vacant lots and waste places in many parts of the United States and Canada. Coming in contact with a person's wet skin, the leaves may cause blisters and a serious rash. Contrary to common belief, the root of this wild parsnip is not poisonous but it should not be used because there are several closely related plants, so similar in appearance that only an expert can tell them apart, which are very poisonous.

The parsnip belongs to a large family of plants most of which bear their flowers in flat-topped umbels -- an exception is the Rattlesnake Master or Button Snakeroot native to our midwestern prairies -- and produce seeds with corky coats having distinctive odors and flavors. It includes the carrot, parsley, celery and several familiar kinds grown for their seeds: dill, caraway, anise (licorice flavor), coriander and cumin. It includes several very common wild plants such as Fennel, Wild Carrot or Queen Anne's Lace, the Golden Alexander or Wild Meadow Parsnip, Smooth Sweet Cicely (which tastes strongly of anise oil), and the Purple Angelica of which the roots and young shoots have been used since colonial days to make candied sweetmeats.

Another member is the Cow Parsnip native in our rich moist bottomlands, It is a coarse hairy plant becoming 4 to 8 feet tall with stems often 2 inches thick at the base, big broad leaves, white flowers in umbels that are 6 to 12 inches across, and a very unpleasant odor. The Indians ate the young stems and boiled the roots as we do turnips.

The Water Hemlock or Musquash Root also grows in wet places. Its roots, which smell like parsnips, and its seeds, contain a deadly poison and many cattle are killed by eating its young shoots in spring. The poison Hemlock, closely related, is supposed to have furnished the "cup of death" given to Socrates.

Parsnips can also be used to make wine or, as in Europe, delicious soup.

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