Parsnips are popular root vegetables, and their sweet roots are a regular on dinner plates across the UK. Discover some fantastic varieties of parsnips and learn how to grow and store them.
Parsnips (Pastinaca sativa) are a simple vegetable to grow and, as well as offering a wealth of opportunities in the kitchen, they can be stored for a long time. It means the tasty aromatic roots can be enjoyed all through a cold winter, in soups and casseroles, mashed, or roasted.
Parsnip: origin and characteristics
The parsnip is a very hardy vegetable that is grown for its edible root. A parsnip plant is a biennial that is grown as an annual for its delicious root. The parsnip roots are yellow-white, have a smooth texture and can come in various shapes. This ranges from wide and broad to wedge-shaped to longer tapered varieties. The parsnip root can grow to be up to 6cm thick and 40cm long, weighing up to 1.5kg.
Parsnip leaves are long, mid-green and aromatic, formed in a rosette, and resembling that of celery (Apium graveolens). Parsnip plant leaves are also edible and can be cooked and eaten. Parsnips flower in the second year, putting on a display of double umbels with small yellow flowers that attract beneficial insects in the summer months.
The parsnip has been around for centuries, originating from southern and central Europe and was even grown during Roman times. According to legend, Emperor Tiberius loved parsnips so much that he had large quantities imported from Germany every year. For centuries, the parsnip root has been a popular crop throughout northern and central Europe, with the British and French reportedly introducing the crop to North America. Parsnips remain a popular root vegetable to this day and are a common sight in both restaurants and home kitchens across the UK.
Parsnips are closely related to carrots (Daucus carota), dill (Anethum graveolens), and parsley (Petroselinum crispum subsp. crispum). They are all members of the Umbelliferae family (Apiaceae). There are thought to be hundreds of different parsnip varieties around the globe. Below are some of the best parsnip varieties for UK gardeners:
- ‘Gladiator F1’: a ‘Gladiator F1’ parsnip has smooth white skin, long roots, and a sweet taste. This variety is an F1 hybrid with a good resistance to disease, particularly to canker (Itersonilla perplexans).
- ‘White Gem’: this parsnip is shorter and broader than other varieties. ‘White gem’ parsnips are high-yielding, reliable, smooth-skinned, and have good canker resistance.
- ‘Tender and True’: a very popular variety, it has long tapered parsnip roots and pale skin. ‘Tender and True’ is an old and consistent type that offers a very sweet flavour in the kitchen.
- ‘Hollow Crown’: the ‘Hollow Crown’ parsnip is one of the oldest parsnip types, dating back to the 1800s. It has long white tapered roots and the name comes from the fact the parsnip leaves form a crown shape.
- ‘Javelin F1’: ‘Javelin F1’ is a British-bred variety favoured by commercial growers for its consistent high yields of smooth-skinned long and thin parsnip roots.
- ‘Albion F1’: a smooth-skinned variety that produces long tapered roots that are very sweet to taste. This variety is bred to be very resistant to many diseases, including canker.
- ‘Panorama F1’: a vigorous variety that produces long parsnip roots with a great sweet flavour.
- ‘Countess F1’: Countess is a high-yielding variety with uniform long smooth-skinned parsnips.
How to grow parsnips: sowing
Parsnips like to grow in a sunny position in deep, light and well-drained soil. It is advisable to grow shorted-rooted varieties on shallow soil. Parsnips are usually grown from seed and sown directly in the bed. For reliable germination, use fresh seed each year for sowing parsnips as the seed is usually only viable for one year, two at most.
Remove stones from the bed before sowing as they can cause the parsnip root to fork when growing. Sow seeds into drills 1cm deep, spacing the rows 30cm apart. Thin out seedlings to 15cm spacings when they appear. Parsnip seeds need a temperature of at least 8 °C to germinate and it can take up to 28 days for seedlings to show. Water well after sowing.
How to care for parsnips: weeding, watering & fertilising
Regularly hoe the bed between the rows to keep it free of weeds. This way the parsnips do not have to compete for space and nutrients.
Parsnips are fairly drought-tolerant and, once established, there is no need to continue to regularly water parsnips. The only time extra watering would be required is in very warm weather if the soil dries completely. In this scenario, water once every two to three weeks if the foliage starts to wilt.
A parsnip plant grows slowly and therefore only needs a small amount of fertiliser. This only applies if the planting site was not amended with compost or well-rotted organic matter prior to sowing the crop. When the seedlings are around 10 to 15cm tall, apply a small dose of fertiliser. Our Plantura Tomato Food is particularly beneficial for parsnips due to its high potassium and magnesium content.
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Parsnips are hardy plants that can be left in the ground all winter and harvested as needed. They taste better in cold weather because starches in the parsnip root are converted to sugar when exposed to frost. This enhances the sweetness and flavour of the root.
Harvesting and storing parsnips
Parsnips are usually ready for harvesting around 160 to 200 days after sowing, depending on the time of sowing and climatic conditions. The root is easiest lifted with a garden fork and will be ready to harvest from September onwards. However, as mentioned prior, most gardeners wait until the parsnips have been hit by frost to sweeten the roots. Wait until the foliage has died back and ease the parsnip roots out of the ground with a fork.
You do not need to harvest parsnips all at once, they are completely hardy and can be overwintered in the garden as previously discussed. If you want to lift and store some as a precaution, for example if you live in an area where the ground might get hard to dig, then place the parsnips in boxes, making sure they are not touching. Leave the parsnips as they came out of the ground, as removing soil or washing them will reduce their storage life. Cover with moist sand and store at a temperature of 0 to 1 °C. Parsnips can be stored for up to six months in ideal conditions.
Nutritional value and different ways to eat parsnips
Parsnips are a great source of vitamins and minerals, including potassium, and vitamins C, K and B6. They are also high in fibre and rich in antioxidants, as well as being touted for having anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer properties.
Parsnips are a popular root vegetable and a common sight at Sunday roast dinners in the UK. The roots are also great for making soups, casseroles, stir-fries and purees. Parsnips can also be mashed in the same way as mashed potatoes or fried as an alternative to potato chips. Parsnip roots are also used as an alternative sweetener and turned into a thick syrup.
Parsnips contain four times more potassium, protein, fibre, and vitamin C than carrots, which they are closely related to. These two popular root vegetables are commonly seen served together on plates up and down the country. If you want to find out more about growing carrots, read our dedicated article on propagating and growing this sweet, popular, and colourful root vegetable.