Heirloom Parsnip Varieties
Learn how to grow heirloom parsnip varieties and enjoy them with a parsnip cake recipe from 1855.
August 27, 2013
By William Woys Weaver
Heirloom Vegetable Gardening by William Woys Weaver is the culmination of some thirty years of first-hand knowledge of growing, tasting and cooking with heirloom vegetables. A staunch supporter of organic gardening techniques, Will Weaver has grown every one of the featured 280 varieties of vegetables, and he walks the novice gardener through the basics of planting, growing and seed saving. Sprinkled throughout the gardening advice are old-fashioned recipes — such as Parsnip Cake, Artichoke Pie and Pepper Wine — that highlight the flavor of these vegetables. The following excerpt on heirloom parsnip varieties was taken from chapter 26, “Parsnips.”
To locate mail order companies that carry these heirloom parsnip varieties, use our Custom Seed and Plant Finder. Check out our collection of articles on growing and harvesting heirloom vegetables in Gardening With Heirloom Vegetables.
A Brief History of Heirloom Parsnip Varieties
The earliest evidence of the human consumption of parsnips has been found in Stone Age remains in Switzerland and South Germany. This has presented botanists with an anomaly, because the genetic home of the parsnip is believed to be the Italian peninsula. In any case, there is little doubt that those Stone Age plants were gathered from the wild rather than cultivated in a garden. Later archaeological remains from the Roman period are many, for the parsnip was one of the root vegetables commonly found in kitchen gardens of that era. The history of the plant is complicated by the fact that classic and medieval authors lumped together parsnips and carrots as two forms of the same thing, so it is often difficult to decipher which one they were discussing, especially since the terms pastinaca and carota were used interchangeably.
In the garden plan of the cloister of St. Gall in Switzerland, a parchment surviving from about A.D. 820, one of the raised beds is clearly labeled pastinacbus, but this could also mean white carrots. The first clear reference to the cultivation of the parsnip appeared in France in 1393 and again in 1473. From that time on, parsnips were treated by themselves in herbals, so the murkiness eventually parts to reveal the vegetable with all of its familiar attributes.
By the middle of the nineteenth century, there were three distinct varieties cultivated in Europe: the long smooth parsnip (the coquaine of France), the turnip-rooted short parsnip known in France as the noisette Lisbonaise, and the yellow-rooted Siam parsnip. The first of these was developed in Holland, the others were French. All of these were once widely cultivated in France, Germany, and Central Europe. Today, the centers of parsnip cultivation are England and France.
The parsnip was a popular vegetable in the United States during the nineteenth century, indeed since the colonial period, but its popularity has now faded. Parsnips brought here by English settlers in the 1600s have escaped and naturalized in many parts of the country. These wild parsnips present a problem for seed savers, because they will cross with the cultivated sorts and cause them to degenerate. On the other hand, they offer ripe ground for breeding new varieties, for one of the most popular of our Victorian varieties, The Student, was created in England from a wild parsnip salvaged from a field in the Cotswolds.
Early American seed lists do not usually list many distinct varieties. The Shakers (1843, 12) offered the long white, the most common sort grown in this country and the one equivalent to the coquaine of France. Fearing Burr listed a number of others, but they were rarely seen in the United States. The Guernsey (panais long of France) was introduced into England in 1826, but never grown much in this country. The Hollow Crown, also dating from the early 1820s, became one of the varieties preferred by many American kitchen gardeners, and one that I heartily recommend. In fact, I would suggest only two heirloom varieties to the general gardener, The Student and the Hollow Crown. Since they are very similar in taste and texture when cooked, probably one or the other would suffice in a small garden. However, I would test them both to determine how they react to the soil, and let that success determine the choice.
Parsnips should be sown as early in the spring as possible because the cold ground revives the seed from deep dormancy. It was discovered long ago that the largest roots are produced by fresh seed, so if it is at all possible, plant the seed soon after it ripens on the plants. Otherwise, plant seed that is clearly dated and unquestionably new, for the viability is only one year. It is pointless to consider saving seed beyond what is necessary for immediate use.
Parsnips tops are large and need a good 1 1/2 to 2 feet of elbow room in all directions. Spacing plants at this distance will produce huge, flavorful roots. Closer than that (seed packets usually recommend 6-inch spacing), the parsnips will develop into something akin to a rather plump carrot. Many people prefer these small parsnips over the large. I think it is important to realize that cultural technique will go far in determining the size of the crop. Unlike carrots, parsnips may be left in the ground all winter. They are often harvested late in the fall after the tops have been nipped by frost, yet many cooks firmly believe that the flavor peaks in the early spring right after the ground thaws. Freezing does not damage the roots. Covering them with straw makes them easier to dig when needed. Otherwise, dig the roots in the fall and store in damp sand in a cool place. Once the plants to begin to grow the following year, the roots turn pithy and cannot be used in cookery. As soon as the plants bolt and begin to bloom, they should be staked so that the seed heads are not broken over by heavy rains. Seed is gathered and dried in the same manner as for carrots.
A special word of caution: The leaves of parsnips exude a juice that causes severe skin rashes on many people, one reason why parsnip greens are not sold on the roots displayed in markets. When harvesting parsnips, always be sure to wear gloves and to wash the hands thoroughly before touching the face or eyes.
This variety became popular in England in the 1820s. George Lindley (1831, 565) listed it among the varieties recommended for kitchen gardens, and it appeared on many American seed lists during the nineteenth century. The variety distinguishes itself by a sunken crown where the leaves are attached to the root. It was considered one of the best of the very long-rooted varieties, but needs deep sandy soil to develop roots true to type. I grow it in a raised bed half filled with sand, and this seems to encourage well-shaped roots, yet if the root strikes a pebble or some other small obstacle in the soil, it will bend or divide into branches. For best results, trench the site deeply and screen the topsoil. The roots often reach 24 inches in length, so care must be taken when digging them not to cut off the ends with the shovel. Better yet, use a pitchfork.
Hollow Crown and another old variety called the sugar parsnip were often used to make muffins and small breads for tea during the Victorian period. The following recipe from Hannah Bouvier Peterson’s National Cook Book (1855, 167) provides instructions on how this was accomplished. The result was called a “cake” in the parlance of the times, being a cupcake in shape, but more like an English muffin in texture.
Boil your parsnips till perfectly soft; pass them through a colander. To one tea cupful of mashed parsnip add one quart of warm milk, with a quarter of a pound of butter dissolved in it, a little salt, and one gill of yeast, with flour enough to make a thick batter. Set it away to rise, which will require several hours, when light stir in as much flour as will make a dough, knead it well and let it rise again. Make it out in cakes about a quarter or half an inch thick, butter your tins or pans, put them on and set them to rise. As soon as they are light bake them in a very hot oven. When done wash over the tops with a little water, and send them to the table hot.
The Vilmorin experiments with the wild Belgian carrot encouraged horticulturists in other countries to look for kitchen garden material in the wild. Professor Buckman of the Royal Agriculture College at Cirencester, England, gathered seed from wild parsnips in the Cotswold hills in 1847. In 1848 he selected plants with certain leaf characteristics, such as fewer hairs, the source of the rash-causing juice. The best of the roots were reserved for seedlings. He repeated this in 1849 and 1850 and continued selecting until 1859, when the variety attained the form we now know as The Student. Buckman sold rights to this new variety to Suttons, the London seed house that first distributed it and gave it its name. Since then. The Student has become a perennial favorite among kitchen gardeners because it produces consistently and of all the parsnip varieties is the least likely to deteriorate.
The salient features of this variety are its short length, never more than 15 inches, and its quickly tapering, wedge-shaped root that is better suited for heavy soils than Hollow Crown.
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Illustrations Courtesy William Woys Weaver. Photo By Fotolia/lizascotty.