By: Justin Butts
The parsnip, a cold-weather root vegetable in the carrot family, has nut-colored skin, a large, bushy top, and a distinctly sweet flavor. The green tops are wonderful in a sauté, and the roots are perfect for roasting or in soups and stews.
Parsnips are more difficult to grow than carrots. First, parsnips require three long weeks to germinate. Second, the temperature must be cold (between 50F to 70F) throughout that period for the seeds to sprout. The soil must be kept moist during that time. Finally, parsnips require a little frost to develop their trademark sweetness.
The Roman emperor Tiberius loved parsnips, but like us here on the coast, he lived in a hot, dry land – which did not produce exceptional parsnips. According to Pliny the Elder, Tiberius preferred the sweeter roots grown in the gloomy forests of Gelduba, a city on the Rhine in Germania, and ordered its people to pay their taxes in parsnips.
Tiberius was the Roman emperor during the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. When Jesus said, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s,” that included parsnips – at least, if you were a citizen of Gelduba.
The Romans carried the cultivation of parsnips northward to the island of Britannia. Parsnips grew beautifully in the damp, cool weather of England. By the Middle Ages, parsnips were common fare on the tables of rich and poor alike. Wealthy lords even fed parsnips to their pigs to flavor the pork, and to their cows to sweeten the milk.
English merchants carried parsnip seeds to every corner of the world, from America to India to Asia, and the roots flourished in every land with cold, wet climates. That weather is not the norm in the Coastal Bend, even during winter. However, by planting in December with the right companion plants, you can grow your own lovely parsnips right here in The Bend.
A Need-To-Know Basis
Prepare the bed by tilling thoroughly and dressing with several inches of compost. Parsnips require rich, well-drained, loosened soil. Clay-rich or rocky soils cause stunted growth. Plant in early December so parsnips receive a month of cold weather to germinate, and with luck, get a frost in January. Keep the soil moist until parsnips sprout. Parsnips can’t be planted on their own or weeds will take over the bed; they must be companion planted.
Companion plant parsnips with carrots and radishes. Mix parsnip, carrot, and radish seeds (one-third each) into a bowl of clean, fine sand. Hand broadcast the seed-and-sand mixture evenly across entire garden bed. Gently rake the seeds into the soil. Radishes mature in 30 days; harvest radishes to thin the bed for the carrots. Carrots mature in 70 days. Pull the carrots to make room for the parsnips, which mature in 120 days. This method minimizes weeding and maximizes garden space.
The changing of seasons is one of the most delicious things in life. Colder months bring earthy root vegetables and a proper roast dinner isn’t complete without parsnips. Simply roast them until caramelized to bring out the sweetness, then finish with a knob of butter, sea salt and cracked pepper.
The Pilgrims brought parsnip seeds to the New World on the Mayflower. Parsnips were used in early America, along with pumpkins and walnuts, to make beer – which was vital to the health of the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock, because drinking fresh water (a vector for many diseases) could be deadly. Pilgrims drank plenty of parsnip beer at the first Thanksgiving. Parsnip beer was standard fare in New England for many years until barley crops could be established.