Two Mediterranean Root Crops
Parsnip (Pastinaca sativa), like its more popular relative, carrot, has escaped from cultivation and persisted in the wild. Some reports of its occurring wild have been erroneous, however. Our native water hemlock (Cicuta), for example, looks somewhat like the parsnip, but is highly poisonous.
Wild plants resembling parsnips should not be taken for food except by persons who are skilled in identifying both the poisonous and nonpoisonous kinds.
Parsnips are believed to be native to the eastern Mediterranean area and northeastward, including the Caucasus. The word pastinaca of the Romans may have included parsnip along with carrot. In Roman times the parsnip was supposed to have medicinal as well as food value. We have no proof that the Greeks and Romans cultivated parsnips, although they used wild ones for food.
There is a story that the Emperor Tiberius was so fond of parsnips that he had them imported each year from Germany, where they grew in profusion along the Rhine. It is possible that the Celts of that part of Europe had brought the parsnip back from their forays to the east hundreds of years before.
Early English Colonists Brought Parsnips
The modern parsnip was definitely illustrated in Germany in 1542. Eight years later it was again illustrated, under the German name Pestnachen, apparently a Germanized form of the old Roman pastinaca. By the mid-16th century it was a common vegetable, being one of the staples of the poorer people of Europe, as the potato is today.
The 16th-century German parsnips were long, like our more popular varieties today. They were doubtless introduced into England no later than the 16th century, since they were well known by the first English colonists in America. They were grown in Virginia in 1609 and were common in Massachusetts 20 years later.
Even the American Indians readily took up the growing of parsnips. In 1779 Gen. John Sullivan in his forays against the Iroquois destroyed stores of parsnips grown by these Indians in western New York.
The "round" form of parsnip, varying from top-shaped to round, is rarely grown in America. Its origin is unknown, but it was described in France in 1824.
About a hundred years ago the well-known variety called Student was originated at Cirencester, England, from seed of the wild parsnip obtained from the gardens of the Royal Agricultural College.
The parsnip is a hardy biennial. In spring there arises from each root a tall, much branched stalk that flowers and produces seeds. Its seeds are rather short-lived, requiring nearly ideal storage to preserve their vitality for more than a year.
The sweetness of the roots of the parsnip becomes well developed only after they have been exposed to cold, but not necessarily frozen, for a few weeks. The roots may be frozen solid without injury if left in place in the garden until they have thawed. The roots of several hardy vegetables will survive freezing in the soil, undisturbed as they grow, but will not survive freezing and rapid thawing in air.
There is no evidence that parsnip or other edible roots that go through the winter in the soil, even if they freeze, become poisonous.
Salsify Tastes Like Oysters
Salsify (Tragopogon porrifolius) is sometimes called "oyster plant" or "vegetable oyster" because its flavor when cooked suggests that of oysters. The edible part of this plant is the long, fleshy, white root.
The name "salsify" is derived from the French salsifis without change in pronunciation and with little change in spelling. Salsify is also called "goatsbeard" because its thin grasslike leaves emerge in a rather compact tuft from the crown atop the sturdy root.
This species is distinct from the so-called black salsify, or scorzonera (Scorzonera hispanica), and from Spanish salsify, or golden thistle (Scolymus hispanicus), neither of which is commonly cultivated in America. Spanish salsify was described by the Greeks and Romans, but they apparently had no interest in the species that we now grow, although it was native to their part of the world. Salsify is often found growing wild in meadows and pastures in the Mediterranean countries to which it is native, and is now cultivated generally there. In ancient times it was not cultivated, but was collected from the wild.
T. porrifolius was eaten in Germany and France in the 13th century, but was not grown in gardens at that time. It seems to have been brought under cultivation in Europe during or soon before the 16th century. It was grown in the 16th century in England as an ornamental plant as well as for food.
Since about 1600 salsify has been cultivated widely in Europe, and it was introduced into America before 1800. It grows slowly, requires a long season for its development, is often disappointing in its yield, and is rather exacting in its requirements.