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Wild Parsnip

Pastinaca sativa

  • Family: Carrot Family – Apiaceae (Umbelliferae)
  • Growing form: Biennial herb. Rootstock strong, yellowish white.
  • Height: 50–130 cm (20–50 in.). Stem bristly, (glabrous–)short-haired, hollow–full. With strong fragrance.
  • Flower: Corolla regular (actinomorphic), pale yellow, max. 5 mm (0.2 in.) wide; petals 5, tip recurved. Sepals absent. Stamens 5. Pistil of 2 fused carpels, styles 2. Inflorescence a compound umbel, secondary umbels 5–10. Primary and secondary umbels lacking bracts.
  • Leaves: Alternate, stalked, leaf-base sheath-like. Blade long, usually pinnate. Leaflets ovate–elliptic, with serrated margins, terminal leaflet 3-lobed.
  • Fruit: Widely elliptic, flat-backed, 2-sectioned, low-ridged, winged, light brown, 5–7 mm (0.2–0.28 in.) long schizocarp.
  • Habitat: Margins of gardens and yards, wasteland, harbours, roadsides, railway embankments, old ballast soil deposits. Also cultivated.
  • Flowering time: July–August.

Wild parsnip grows on strips of waste ground and road-sides and catches the attention of passers-by: this large, golden-topped plant is different from most of its white-flowered relatives. Few people realise, however, that this is the same plant whose root can be bought in the local shop to make soup and stock.

Parsnip was already cultivated in Ancient Greece, but modern, swollen carrot-like roots were only developed during the Middle Ages. The biennial plant stores nutrition in its root which is dug up late in the autumn of its first year before it flowers, or in fact it can keep in the ground until spring better than in a cellar. Uncultivated parsnip has a thin root and is much more bitter than the cultivated population. It has earlier been abundantly farmed in Finland, but it is less familiar nowadays as it is not so popular. On the other hand, harvesting the root prevents it from ever flowering – not many people would know what a flowering carrot looks like!

Some Finnish wild parsnip stands are a legacy of nearby cultivation, so they are escapes from cultivation. The species seems to have established itself in Finland already in the Middle Ages, but it also arrived mixed up in lawn seed or with traffic, and it has gradually spread over the decades. Of parsnip’s subspecies, the sparsely-haired garden variety ssp. sativa is clearly the most common, but grey-haired ssp. sylvestris can also be found close to old ballast soil dumps in harbour towns.

Other species from the same family

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