Parsnips (Pastinaca sativa) made their way to this continent about the same time that potatoes went the other direction. In the early days of colonial America, before European explorers brought potatoes back with them to the old world, parsnips had been the starchy root vegetable of choice. They brought parsnips with them to North America as a staple food crop. Once here it promptly escaped their gardens and now they’re everywhere!
Look for parsnips in areas with open-sun such as meadows and stream banks. You may even find them in partial shade such as the edges of the woods, especially in and around parks. They’d perform better out in the open sun, but they often hug the wood line because those are the ones that get missed by the mower. Another great place to find parsnips are the areas around agricultural fields, often between the roads and the fields themselves. You’ll often see 10-20 feet wide tracks of wild parsnips extend for miles and miles between a country road and a corn or soybean field. There’s a whole other farm growing there right under everyone’s noses, producing thousands of tons of food with zero cultivation effort. Parsnips are another one of those wild weeds that many farmers would like to see eradicated. If you don’t already have a ton of them on your own property, ask around your neighbors and you’ll most likely come up with a few that will have no problem with you hauling all of the wild parsnips off their property that you can carry.
Identification and Harvest
Wild parsnips are related to carrots and parsley and, like those plants, it begins life as a basal rosette, which is the phase at which it is best harvested. Several long pedicels (leaf stems) bearing leaflets on opposite sides of it and ending with a terminal leaf will grow out of the rosette. It produces a taproot that very much resembles a white carrot. In rocky soils, the root may be misshapen, but it most cases the taproots will be quite straight and uniform. The unique scent of parsnip roots is another excellent identifying feature. Once you come to know it, you can’t mistake it.
Harvesting parsnips is a fairly straightforward process. Just dig them up with a shovel and cut the greens off. But be mindful of the greens, which contain chemicals that can cause dermatitis in some people when the oils get on their hands and are exposed to sunlight. I have harvested at least a hundred thousand parsnips and handled all of their greens and have never experienced this. I am yet to have anyone from one of my wild foods workshops report this having happened to them either, but it does happen to some people and you should take appropriate precautions.
In the Kitchen
I love potatoes, but cuisine really lost something when parsnips fell out of fashion. They’re sweet and delicious with a very agreeable texture. If you’ve never tasted a parsnip, it’s kind of like a carrot crossbred with a potato. It has the sweetness of carrots but more starch. Wild parsnips are exactly the same species as the ones you’d find in the grocery store, so if you are already familiar with commercial parsnips, you won’t find any difference in the wild variety other than the fact that they tend to run smaller than their farm-raised cousins.
Parsnips are fantastic when mashed like potatoes. I often make 50/50 mashed potatoes and parsnips and always get compliments on the flavor. Use parsnip mash to top a shepherd’s pie and you’ll have a delicious, old-world treat. Parsnips are also excellent when roasted like carrots and served alongside any meat dish. Two over-easy eggs, sausage links, and a big scoop of roasted wild parsnips is about the best breakfast I can recall ever having eaten.