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Pastinaca sativa, family Apiaceae

Many vegetables are in the same family as parsnips. In this course we have carrots, celery, celeriac and fennel, and others include parsley, coriander, dill and cumin. All grow umbel shaped flowers in their second summer, hence the colloquial family name of umbellifers.

Parsnips are native to Asia and Europe, and were much appreciated by the Romans. They are nothing like as popular as carrots and deserve to be better known, partly because they are easy to grow and are a substantial harvest for winter.

  • The part we eat of both parsnips and carrots is the taproot.
  • They are the two vegetables that are best sown direct rather than transplanted. Transplants usually suffer damage to the taproot, resulting in a smaller harvest with fanged roots.

Wild parsnips are common in hedgerows of temperate regions, and they carry tall stems with pretty white flowers, every year in late spring. All parsnips are biennial plants that we grow as annuals – see ‘Varieties’ below.

30th March – six weeks after I had sown parsnips and a few radish in a mulch of two-year-old cow manure, spread in December
19th May – two months since being sown and the radish have been harvested; the parsnips are showing excellent germination and growth

Harvest period

  • Days from seed to first harvest: 180, to last harvest: 390
  • Best climate is moist, warm summers, not too hot and dry, with cool winters.

Why grow them

Parsnips have about an 80% water content, which may sound a lot but is very much at the low end for vegetables. Carrots are 86–95% water, depending on the variety and when harvested.

About 5% of parsnip roots is sugar of different kinds, which helps them to resist damage by freezing. In cold weather the sugars convert from starch to sucrose, hence the advice to eat parsnips after a frost, for more sweetness.

  • They were used as a sweetener in parts of Europe, before the arrival of cane sugar in the 18th century.

The sweetness is also enhanced by roasting, which, in the UK at least, is a traditional way to eat parsnips and makes them super tasty. They are also delicious grated raw in salads, with some lemon juice.

This parsnip cake was made for a Homeacres open day, and was the most popular of a selection of ten cakes made by Stephanie Hafferty; she did add sugar!
10th October – a high yield of Gladiator F1, sown mid-March
16th November – Gladiator parsnips from a trial bed; Strip One had forked soil and returned 3.62 kg/8 lb after removing parsnips so cankered they were inedible, Strip 2 returned 9.02 kg/20 lb and Strip Three gave 3.38 kg/7.5 lb

The photo above right is of harvests in 2016 from my Three Strip Trial – I am unsure why Strip 3 was lower in that instance.

Pattern of growth

One difference to carrots is that parsnips continue to swell all through the growing season, from one early sowing. In contrast, carrots start to lose quality about four months from sowing, becoming less tender and sometimes splitting.

Through autumn, parsnip leaves start to yellow and then go brown, leaving what was a bed full of abundant growth looking suddenly barren. Our food, the parsnip taproots, survive winter in a dormant state. Then, as soon as there is warmth in late winter or early spring, they sprout again.

  • New growth in the second spring is not contributing to any more growth of the parsnip tap root.
  • In contrast, it is taking goodness from that root, because parsnips are storage organs that power new growth in early spring to make flowers and eventually seeds.

Growing a flower stem makes the taproot woody and inedible. Therefore it’s best to harvest parsnips by late winter before too much growth has happened. From early spring, sugars in the roots are used by new growth, while the texture becomes fibrous.

Gladiator, harvested in December and free from canker disease
From a 1.5/5ft row in no dig clay soil – the yield is 6 kg/13.2 lb of White Gem parsnips
29th October – from two rows of 1.5 m/5 ft, these Gladiator F1 parsnips gave 10.7 kg/23.9 lb from the dig bed and 9.7 kg/21.4 lb from the no dig bed, although there was more forking in the dig bed

Suitable for containers/shade?

Parsnips will grow in shade, and you could grow them in a container as well, although they would occupy the container for a whole year.

You need a pot of 30 cm/12 in depth, or a little more, in order to have a worthwhile harvest.

Varietal ups and downs

All open-pollinated varieties have the caveat of how well they are being maintained. The word variety also means discrepancy! The correct botanical term is ‘cultivar’, but I say variety because almost everybody then knows what I mean.

A cultivar/variety of parsnip called The Student was bred by Professor James Buckman from 1847 to 1861. It was a project to show his students how one can selectively breed from wild stock. The result was even more successful than he had anticipated.

They started with wild parsnips from the Cotswold hedgerows near Cirencester.  First they collected seeds, then the next spring sowed these to grow ‘wild’ parsnips. From the harvests that autumn, they selected the growth characteristics they wanted. They replanted those parsnips the following spring.

  • Within five years, they had an acceptable parsnip – reasonably tender and fleshy, and of good flavour.
  • Within 14 years they had a named variety, reckoned to be among the best available for gardeners.

The other side of this trial shows how the characteristics we prize can quickly be lost, as well as gained. Seed producers need to be careful with their root selections every year.


White Gem has medium length roots, broad shoulders and a little resistance to canker.

Tender and True is acclaimed for flavour. I like it but feel that any flavour difference is not huge.

The Student, worth a try!! The outcome will depend on who looked after it.

Gladiator F1 is, in my experience, the most canker resistant variety, with roots of even shape and often long.

Javelin F1 grows slightly thinner roots than Gladiator, also with resistance to canker.

Hamburg Root grows leaves like parsley and a root like parsnip, although smaller if you pick the parsley a lot. Fun to try at least!

14th November – washed parsnips: open-pollinated White Gem on the left and Countess F1 on the right
24th January – harvested and stored vegetables, including Javelin F1

sow & propagate
Transplant - Size, time of year, Spacing, support
container growing
Prune and train plants/thin fruit
Harvest times and method
Potential problems


Remove any large pieces of fruit or stem, rake level and spread 2.5 cm/1 in of compost. Leave over winter, ready for next steps in the spring.

Follow with

Parsnip harvests finish too late for any new sowings until spring.

Any vegetables can follow them, preferably of a different family. I reckon leaving at least a year between growing carrots and parsnips in the same ground, especially parsnips, because they occupy a bed for all or most of the growing season.