We were visiting colleges with our son this past week. But even then, I could not escape my passion for wild plants. As we were driving through New England I kept seeing a plant on the side of the road that I just couldn’t place. It was quite tall, and already dead, but it had such a familiar form. Out loud to my husband I said, "Gosh, I just can’t place that plant. It looks like poison hemlock, but I know it’s not, and Queen Anne’s Lace wouldn’t be dead in mid-August. I know I’ve seen its picture." Believe it or not, I had my wild-foods book with me (I like to just scan it often to remind myself of things) and I began to flip through it. Sure enough, there it was, staring at me on the page – wild parsnip! The description was exactly as I had described to my husband. I had never been able to find any around our house, and there it was, flying past my window. Tons and tons and tons of it! You could feed an army with the amount of parsnip we saw along the side of the road in Vermont and New Hampshire – maybe two armies.
Wild parsnip is apparently an escape-y from the garden – way, way back when people ate parsnips. Supposedly it is even sweeter and more nutritious than the cultivated variety – something that is true about many wild cousins of overly-domesticated plants. It is a biennial; the first year it grows a rosette of huge basal leaves, as much as two feet long. In the second year, it grows a large, thick, hairless stalk, with umbrella-like clusters of flowers, much like Queen Ann’s Lace. Unlike this familiar plant, the parsnip’s flowers are yellow. Soon the flowers turn to seed, and by late summer the plant dies. Unfortunately, by the time wild parsnip is so easy to find and identify, it is inedible. The root of the first-year plant is an exceedingly healthy vegetable, and can be dug through fall into early spring. But by the time it begins to produce a stalk, it can’t be eaten. I don’t know if it becomes poisonous, or just too tough, but don’t eat it. And for some people, the leaves can cause a terrible rash and the plant should be handled with gloves. Sounds like a plant to avoid! But it’s not. Parsnip is high in vitamin C, calcium, potassium, phosphorus, folate, and vitamin K, as well as many other nutrients. It’s good for kidneys and the functions of other organs, as well. I think because parsnips are kind of ugly and can cause a rash, they got forgotten, perhaps replaced by their prettier cousin, the carrot. But while carrot is certainly very high in vitamin A, something parsnips lack, and has more omega-6 (although parsnip has a lot), the parsnip beats out the carrot in literally every other category, including having three times the vitamin C, four times the folate and manganese, and lots more vitamin K. These trace vitamins and minerals are often lacking in the modern diet.
I am going to plant parsnip next year. I planted it about ten years ago and remember it being delicious, especially in soup. After growing it, I may be able to more easily identify its wild brother, and bring home even more vitamins. I hope I don’t have to go up to New England to find it!