In Praise of Parsnips

I threw seeds into the growing bed this fall. The carrots had been pulled and weeds hoed. While cleaning out my brother’s apartment, I had found some old packets of radish and parsnips seeds. I am not sure why Stanley had them—he had never grown either and had lived in an apartment for the last five years. No telling how old the seeds were.

But rather than throwing the seeds in the trash, I threw them all in one of my growing beds. From the looks of the growing bed—only the parsnips grew. To my surprise, they flourished in the cool autumn days. I discovered parsnips thrive in a winter garden and are best harvested after the first hard frost.

I am a haphazard and indolent gardener. I did not plant the parsnips in rows and did not thin them to enlarge the growth of their white roots. I have never eaten a parsnip, so I have no idea of if they can be made palatable. Some people complain they are bitter. I have read they are best roasted.

But my growing bed is full of their greens which after today’s winter storm hang over the sides. The large leaves flapped like green flags in the gusting wind. I am not searching for a metaphor here. I like the fact of parsnips—that they flourish in the cold, that they offer the bare garden rich green leaves. They are a riot of green in the cold margins of the growing season.

They come, in a sense, from a bad family—except for the carrot–it is mostly an inedible family. We have wild cow parsnips here in Oregon that grow like weeds along the coast on foggy headlands. These wild parsnips have edible, but bitter roots. A few members of the carrot family, like water hemlock and poison hemlock, are deadly.

Like turnips, parsnips do not generate much excitement. However, because they grow through the winter, they can save the lives of the desperate and starving. They grow when and where other food won’t. Like janitors, they go to work when everyone else has gone home.

Because I am a romantic (often to my dismay), my moods swing with the seasons. So I am always encouraged by plants (like witch hazel in the Midwest and myrtle wood trees here) that bloom in the winter and vegetables that can be harvested from frozen ground. I suspect I am hungry for hope, but I will try the parsnips in January.

About Mark

I live in Myrtle Point, Oregon with my wife Teckla and am the father of four boys. Currently I teach writing and literature at Southwest Oregon Community College. I am a graduate of Myrtle Point High School, Northwest Nazarene College, and have a Masters in English from Washington State University.
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