A Curious History of Vegetables: Aphrodisiacal and Healing Properties, Folk Tales, Garden Tips, and Recipes - Wolf D. Storl (2016)
Parsnip (Pastinaca sativa)
Family: Umbelliferae: umbellifer or carrot family
Other Names: chirivía, grand chervis, panais, parsnip herb, parsnip root, pastinacae herba, pastinacae radix, pastenade
Healing Properties: arouses desire (aphrodisiac), reduces fever, stimulates menstruation (emmenagogue), alleviates stone ailments, alleviates stomach ailments, promotes urination (diuretic)
Symbolic Meaning: gives life-energy; formerly eaten in Europe during the time of fasting; dedicated to the patron of swine, Antonius
Planetary Affiliation: Jupiter, Venus (Culpeper)
The parsnip is a biennial Umbelliferae with a fleshy, aromatic, white-yellow storage root. Though the seeds can be obtained in any organic seed store and the vegetable is well known in culinary circles, it is unfortunately no longer commonly known. It used to be very common in Europe. In fact, until the eighteenth century parsnips were even more popular than carrots. The vegetable is not as crisp and delicate as carrots but it has both more bulk—a ripe root can weigh up to one pound—and more nutritional value.
During the times of knights and minnesingers, the parsnip was a most popular vegetable. One particularly intriguing medieval recipe calls for sautéing and baking parsnips with almonds, chestnuts, raisins, nutmeg, and expensive spices. Their distinct flavor goes very well with roast venison, mutton, or beef. But parsnips were just as popular in the humble kitchens of the simple folk as they were in the cuisine of the aristocracy. Before potatoes replaced them, parsnips were an important filling and nourishing ingredient to stews and soups, as the root contains a lot of sugar, starch, and fatty oils. It was often used to strengthen the old, the weak, or the convalescent. Even into the nineteenth century milk with parsnips was given to help those with consumption—those experiencing the continual depletion, emaciation, loss of strength, and appetite of the then-fatal disease tuberculosis.
Illustration 55. Parsnip root and leaf
Parsnips that are sown in the spring can be harvested in late fall, but those who know the vegetable agree that the roots taste best after having been nipped by a frost. As such, they really should be left in the ground through the winter and then harvested in early spring. In the springtime they taste sweeter and are easier to digest because the stored starches slowly turn back into sugars. Parsnips were the ideal food during the forty days of Lent—the prescribed time for fasting, from Ash Wednesday until Holy Saturday (the Saturday after Good Friday). During Lent, occurring as it did during a dark time of year, food supplies became scarce. Parsnips were ideal because they are filling and contain a lot of vitamin C, which activates the glands and combats winter scurvy. In northwestern Europe during fasting time parsnips were eaten with pickled herring, boiled eggs, and mustard greens. The Irish brewed a tasty parsnip beer—some malt and yeast were added, but no hops. Later, the Irish also distilled parsnip alcohol and even made parsnip jam.
The flat, schizocarp parsnip seeds were widely used for seasoning. In eastern Europe, where indigenous plants still have a higher standing than in the affluent West, parsnip seeds (usually ground) are used as seasoning in soups, salads, sauerkraut, and pickles. Interestingly, though the root causes flatulence, the seeds are carminative, and thus reduce flatulence.
The young leaves and tips of the stalks are also good seasoning (in small doses) for soups and meals with lentils, peas, or carrots. It is reported that each spring, famous explorer Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) had his cook prepare the following soup in order to maintain good health: bear’s garlic, daisy blossoms, yarrow sprigs, stinging nettle sprigs, plantain leaves, chickweed, chervil, ground ivy leaves, and parsnip greens were sautéed in butter, onions, and flour, then deglazed with broth.
Illustration 56. Blossoming parsnip (Joachim Camerarius, Neuw Kreütterbuch, 1586)
The root vegetable not only makes humans healthy and robust, it is also good for animals. Parsnips were grown in fields to fatten pigs and keep them healthy over the winter. The holy hermit St. Anthony, who is the patron saint of pig herders, butchers, and brush makers (they used to be made mostly with pig bristles) is, of course, also the patron of pig fodder. Thus he is the guardian of the parsnip root. Since St. Anthony is also the protector against pests and bubonic plague, the common folk believed that eating parsnips would help them avoid these terrible scourges, though no proof is known to support that claim. Parsnip roots were also fed to cattle; milk and butter were richer if cows were given parsnips to eat in the winter months along with hay and other roughage. Such butter was claimed to taste as good as that of cows that ate fresh grass.
All in all, the parsnip enjoyed a long period of popularity up until the early nineteenth century, when potatoes began to dominate agriculture—at which point parsnips faded into obscurity.
It still remains a mystery as to where and when parsnips were first cultivated. Archaeologists have found its seeds at excavation sites of the late Neolithic lake dwellers in the foothills of the Alps, but we cannot know whether the plant was cultivated or gathered wild. In any case, the wild plant is a native of Europe. Surely it was one of the plants that Old Stone Age gatherers dug out with a dibble and carried to their camps in nets and baskets. The Celts, Germanics, and Slavs and also occasionally the Romans cultivated whole fields of this root crop. It is reported that Roman emperor Tiberius (42 BC-37 AD) liked the hearty flavor so much that he had the vegetable imported from the provinces along the Rhine. (You may recall that the emperor had greenhouses built for growing cucumbers.) Unfortunately, we know nothing more specific about parsnip: up until the seventeenth century, hardly any linguistic distinction was made between parsnips, carrots, parsley roots, skirret (Siam sisarum), or, indeed, any other edible roots. The name also gives us no clues; parsnip (from the Latin pastinare = to dig out; pastinum = digging fork) merely means “a dug-out root.”
The seeds of this once very important vegetable came to the New World with the first settlers, specifically to Virginia (where the tribe of the Indian princess Pocahontas lived) and Massachusetts. The plant soon escaped garden confines and seeded itself out as a wild invasive species. Even today it is found growing wild throughout North America, especially along waysides and in fallow fields. The Native Americans took to the new vegetable, cultivating it in their gardens. Parsnips soon became part of the winter supplies of the Iroquois—along with corn, pumpkins, beans, and nuts; when these stockpiles were destroyed in 1779 by General Sullivan on a punitive expedition against the insubordinate natives, the resulting famine forced the Iroquois to surrender.
As Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925) formulates it, parsnips, like other umbellifers, have a strong “etheric body.” The biennial absorbs so much etheric life energy in the first year that its root becomes massive and juicy. Simultaneously it opens itself so much to cosmic light energy that it becomes filled to the very tip of its root with aromatic essential oils. These astral forces let the plant “explode into space” in the second year, so that it blossoms and produces seed. Another way of putting it would be to say that parsnips show a very dynamic yin-yang polarity, which accounts for their healing nature.
In its wild form in particular, the parsnip has been known for ages as a healing plant. Its concentrated, life-giving energy is what makes it an ideal food for those suffering from consumption. Dioscorides (~40-90 AD), the ancient master of phytotherapy, prescribed it as a means “to make the female womb able to conceive”; also, “it creates a desire for coitus.” Leonhart Fuchs (1501-1566) wrote: “Drinking the cooked-out root provokes desire in married couples” (Neuw Kreuterbuch, 1543). Folk sayings echoed the view: “Leaves and seeds cooked in wine and drunken mornings and evenings, helps infertile women be able to conceive.” The German name “buck’s herb” was given to the parsnip not only for its aphrodisiacal nature but also for its strong odor. Its essential oil, which contains caproic acid esters, makes it smell somewhat like a billy goat.
According to Rudolf Steiner, cosmic astrality manifests itself in plants in their aromatic oil. This astral energy has the ability to set life energy into motion. When we take the parsnip, especially its seeds, into our bodily microcosm, it also sets our fluids into motion—stimulating the digestive, sexual, and excretive glands. Thus, traditional folk medicine recommends a tea made of the seeds or dried leaves as a diuretic and to stimulate the gall bladder. Such an infusion is good for dropsy, kidney and bladder stones, a weak stomach, and fever, as well as for functional weaknesses of the sexual organs (erectile dysfunction and ejaculation difficulties). Dioscorides prescribed parsnips to help the flow of menstrual troubles. Leonhart Fuchs also wrote: “if the root is inserted into the vagina, it will drive a dead foetus out.”
In England, more so than elsewhere, parsnips remained a treasured vegetable for a long time. Nicholas Culpeper (1616-1654) described the medicinal effect as “opening,” diuretic, carminative, cleansing, and good for the bite of wild animals (probably as a cataplasm). Because of its effect on the urinary-genital system, he placed the plant under the rule of Venus. The big yellowish, nourishing, sweet root shows that Jupiter is involved as well. The root also contains inulin and some fats.
John Wesley (1703-1791), founder of the Pietistic Methodist movement in England, didn’t just care about the souls of the poor, the exploited workers of the early Industrial Revolution; he also cared about their health. As they could obviously not afford doctors and medication, and were generally undernourished, the revivalist preacher wrote a booklet for them: Primitive Physic: An Easy and Natural Way of Curing Most Diseases. In it he listed simple naturopathic treatments and local domestic plants that were both free and easily found. For example, he suggested applying to cancerous abscesses a poultice made of mashed parsnip leaves and stalks; for asthma and tuberculosis he recommended eating parsnips. The booklet became very popular among the settlers in America, where there were few doctors; thus parsnips became an integral part of American folk medicine as well. Ironically, had the settlers asked the Native Americans, they’d have learned the healing properties of the plant were already well utilized.
CULTIVATION: The seed is slow to germinate and will be helped by being soaked overnight in cool water. Sow thickly in rows as soon as the ground can be worked in spring. Apply a light layer of mulch in order to conserve moisture in the soil, for the seeds must remain damp in order to germinate at all. Thin the seedlings to two to three inches apart and then increase the thickness of the mulch to keep weeds at bay. Parsnips are a long-season crop. Begin to harvest after the first hard frost and continue for as long as possible. The flavor of this root vegetable is greatly improved by a couple of hard freezes, which turns its starches into sugars; in fact, you can leave parsnips in the ground until just before the ground freezes too hard to to be dug. As with carrots, scatter a few radish seeds in the row to act as a marker. You can harvest the radishes just as the parsnips are making good progress. (LB)
SOIL: Like all deeply growing root crops, parsnips prefer deeply prepared, loose, sandy loam. Heavy clays will inhibit root growth. As a slow grower, it does not require highly fertile soil, but a good application of aged manure, made before planting time, will aid its progress.
Parsnips with Basil Vinegar and Basil Sauce ✵ 4 SERVINGS
½ cup (115 milliliters) vegetable broth ✵ ¼ cup (60 grams) fresh sweet basil leaves ✵ 1 pounds (500 grams) unpeeled parsnips, cubed ✵ 1 cup (225 grams) peeled or unpeeled potatoes, cubed ✵ 1 tablespoon basil vinegar ✵ 2 tablespoons olive oil ✵ ½ cup (115 milliliters) cream (18% fat) ✵ sea salt ✵ pepper
In a large pan, bring the vegetable broth to a boil. Add the basil, parsnips, and potatoes and cook about 15 minutes. When the parsnips and potatoes are tender but still firm, lift them out of the broth into a serving dish and keep warm. In a small bowl, mix the vinegar, olive oil, and cream. Add this to the vegetable broth. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Simmer the broth mixture uncovered for about 30 minutes or as long as it take to reduce by about half. Transfer the mixture to a serving dish and serve as a sauce with the vegetables.
Parsnips with Mustard ✵ 2 SERVINGS
2 parsnips ✵ 1 egg ✵ 2 tablespoons flour ✵ 1 tablespoon mustard ✵ 2 tablespoons parsley, finely chopped ✵ ground coriander ✵ herbal salt ✵ white pepper ✵ ¾ cup (175 grams) bread crumbs ✵ 3 tablespoons butter
In a medium pot, boil the parsnips in slightly salted water until tender but still firm, about 10 minutes. Let cool. Cut the parsnips into wheels, about ¼ inch thick. In a medium bowl, mix the egg, flour, and mustard until smooth. Add the parsley, coriander, herbal salt, and pepper to taste. Add the parsnip wheels to the bowl and marinate for 1 hour at room temperature. Put the bread crumbs in a bowl. Dredge the parsnip wheels on both sides in the breadcrumbs. In a large skillet, fry the parsnips in the butter until golden brown.