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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Update: June 2012