This time we’ll look at two less frequently grown plants in the Apiaceae family of vegetables – parsnip and bulb fennel. I’ve grown parsnips and I’ve tried to grow bulb fennel, with no success.
I’ve planted what was identified as bulb producing fennel a couple of times and I’ve never been able to grow a bulb; only tall and exuberant fronds with lots of flowers and seeds. That’s not to say it can’t be done.
So why bother if I’m only getting the leafy plant? Because I like the fennel seeds that follow the flowering, a tasty treat that freshens your breath and aids indigestion. Chew them when they’re still a bit green for a lovely pop of flavor. Fennel seeds can also be used in cooking and as a flavoring. It tastes like anise. The feathery fronds are edible and can be added to salads. If you are lucky enough to get a root, chop it up and add raw to salads. It’s delightful.
Letting this plant go to seed, however, is problematic. You’ll have a LOT of fennel seeds and next year you will a have a LOT of fennel everywhere. Fennel can create a veritable wall of delicious vegetation that is not easy to remove as it has a long taproot.
Fennel has a few more benefits that might just make it worthwhile. It is highly repellent to fleas; you can put dried fennel leaves in a kennel to protect your dog. It also repels aphids. And it attracts some of the bugs you’d like to see in your garden – ladybugs, hoverflies, and parasitic wasps (the good ones).
Because it has a taproot, it does not like to be transplanted. Sow it where you intend for it to grow. And sow it by itself; fennel has no plant companions.
Fennel can withstand cold weather but harvest before freezing.
Health Benefits of fennel: Fennel (the bulb) has a good amount of dietary fiber, as well as vitamin C, folate and potassium.
Parsnip seeds deteriorate quickly so get new seeds every year. If you are trying to save seeds, you’ll need to let the plant overwinter and go to seed the following year. It’s a biennial. Mother Earth News suggests sprouting your seeds first in a wet paper towel in an airtight container, and then planting them once the first seeds have sprouted. They need 110 to 120 days so plant them in early spring in loose, fertile soil. They’ll do well with an application of compost and regular weeding. And keep them consistently moist. These are thirsty plants!
Harvesting and Storing Parsnips: Harvest them AFTER the first frost. The cold weather makes them sweeter. In fact, parsnips contain more sugar than carrots, and are comparable to bananas! Don’t let them get too big or they can become woody. You can leave them in the ground and continue to harvest through the winter (a straw mulch over the row will make it easier to dig them out). Or avoid the risk of over-maturity by pulling them out in the fall, washing them, and taking off the tops. Now they’re ready to store in the fridge (not freezer) in a plastic bag. They’ll keep up to two months.
Pests: Several insects find parsnips a tasty treat. Their leaves can be invaded by celery leaf miner larvae and the root can be damaged by carrot fly larvae. Parsnips are also vulnerable to a whole host of diseases – parsnip canker (choose a resistant variety), two kinds of root rot (in which case, remove them from your property and don’t plant parsnips in that spot for four years), powdery mildew, and numerous viruses.
Health Benefits of Parsnips: With everything that could go wrong with parsnips, why bother? Because parsnips are a very healthy food. They have anti-cancer, anti-inflammatory and anti-fungal properties. They are a great source of soluble and insoluble fiber – the kind that can reduce blood cholesterol. It is high in vitamin C and many of the B vitamins, as well as K and E. And they contain lots of mineral. Most of the vitamins and minerals are found close to the skin so peel it finely or cook it whole.
Cooking parsnips: While you could eat it raw, it’s usually baked, fried as chips, roasted with other root vegetables, or boiled and mashed like potatoes. You can cube it and add it to soups or stews, or you can remove the cubes and use the starchy cooking water to thicken broths. Don’t overcook it; which is easy to do because it contains so much sugar.
You can even make wine with Parsnips!
Food Safety Note for Parsnips
Parsnip stems and leaves contain a photosensitive chemical that causes skin redness, burning and blisters if the skin is exposed to sunlight after handling. This is a type of chemical burn, not an allergic reaction. That’s why you want to remove the leaves and stems right away.
Parsnips are also one of those vegetables that people with a birch pollen allergy may react to, with itching, burning, and breathing difficulties.
Wild Plants in the Family: Cow Parsnip
Cow parsnip is a native plant found in many counties in Minnesota. It’s in the same family as parsnip and Native peoples are reported to have eaten the young leaves and stalks, but unless you know what you’re doing, it’s best to leave this parsnip cousin alone. Wild parsnip contain toxic chemicals called furanocoumarins. Like regular parsnips, the juice from the leaves and stems are photo-toxic, causing a severe and persistent rash when the skin is exposed to sunlight. If you get any of the juice on your hands when pulling this plant out of your garden, wash your hands immediately.
An Extremely Dangerous Relative: Giant Hogweed
While researching this family, I learned about giant hogweed. This plant sounds like it came out of an X-File episode. Like parsnips, its sap has photo-toxic effects, but this plant takes it to the extreme. If you come in contact with it, the blistering can be so severe as to require hospitalization and it can leave lifelong scars and skin discoloration. If it comes in contact with your eyes, it can cause blindness.
It is most common on the East Coast but has been moving steadily westward. It was recently found in Wisconsin… so it’s heading our way.