A few years ago, I took over an allotment that had been abandoned for some time. It was an education in how long any of our cultivated crops would last without us lavishing constant attention on them. The autumn raspberries had taken over one end of the plot and there was still a cheerful patch of rhubarb, a plant that I always assume will conquer the world after a nuclear war, but everything else had disappeared under a sea of willowherb and docks.
When I started digging however, there was one more surprise survivor. A healthy crop of large, well-shaped parsnips (Pastinaca sativa). Judging from how long the allotment had been unused, they must have been several generations away from the ones originally sown by the gardener. I was inspired to allow parsnips to go feral in my forest garden.
Having all but forgotten about them, I dug up my first self-seeded parsnip yesterday. It turned out to be a beauty. It was around 300mm long, weighed in at 700g (one and a half pounds) and, despite my worries that it would be all worm-eaten, was almost flawless.
This particular parsnip was growing under in the shade of an apple tree. The soil it was in is deep and sandy but doesn’t get fed much apart from an annual mulch of leaves. The only effort that went into this parsnip all year was when I dug it up. The remainder have disappeared under a layer of snow for just now, but there seemed to be a good number.
So we feasted on parsnip this evening. First parsnip chips, then noodle soup with parsnip. That’s chips in the British sense of chunky fries, not in the American sense of crisps. Sliced up and deep fried, they cook very quickly and are delicious, fatty and sweet: excellent winter food if perhaps not the most healthy way of enjoying them. Very little was wasted: young parsnip leaves are also edible, tasting to me rather like celery leaves. Some sources say that they can be treated as a leaf vegetable, but I would say they are better thought of as a seasoning. Speaking of seasonings, like so many of their relatives in the carrot family, parsnip seeds are also useful as a spice, tasting a bit like dill. This is very useful for me because we have motley dwarf virus in the allotments which cuts down any actual dill I plant quite quickly.
So far, very encouraging. I’ll keep on allowing my parsnips to self seed, even if that does mean taking the biggest and best of them every year and replanting them to go on and provide the next generation. (If you would like to try the seed yourself, I have it on my seed list at Forest garden seeds.)
P.S. One final use of parsnip: the Plants for a Future database says that a tea made from the root is good for ‘women’s complaints’. From observation of my girlfriend, I can only assume that this means that it helps Linux work better. Very strange.