Parsnip Chervil - Forgotten, Rare, and Less-Known Vegetables - A Curious History of Vegetables: Aphrodisiacal and Healing Properties, Folk Tales, Garden Tips, and Recipes - Wolf D. Storl

A Curious History of Vegetables: Aphrodisiacal and Healing Properties, Folk Tales, Garden Tips, and Recipes - Wolf D. Storl (2016)

Forgotten, Rare, and Less-Known Vegetables

Parsnip Chervil (Chaerophyllum bulbosum)

Parsnip Chervil (Chaerophyllum bulbosum)

Family: Apiaceae; formerly Umbelliferae: umbellifer or carrot family

Other Names: bulbous chervil, tuberous-rooted chervil, turnip-rooted chervil

Healing Aspects: unknown to date

Symbolic Meaning: elegant indulgence; draws light and air energy into the cold, watery element

Planetary Affiliation: Mercury; ROOT: Jupiter

Parsnip chervil is an almost completely forgotten vegetable. It was popular in the European Middle Ages—before the reign of the potato—because it is both tasty and very nutritious; it contains protein and up to 57 percent starch. The short, thick gray-brown root (botanically speaking the vegetable is a root crown, or hypocotyl) has whitish, yellow flesh that has an aromatic flavor similar to chestnuts—though when eaten raw after a frost it tastes more like hazelnuts. For these reasons the plant was called “earth chestnut” (Erdkastanie) and “earth nut” (Erdnuss) in German. The flavor improves if the root is left to age after harvesting, during which time much of the starch turns to sugar; indeed, it tastes best around Christmas time.

Parsnip chervil can be found growing in the wild in Austria, the Czech Republic, and eastern Europe, and even into the Ural and Altai Mountains. It is also said to grow in Iran and Turkey. It grows in moist soil between bushes, on the edge of forests, and alongside rivers and streams. As it does not generally grow in western Europe, whenever it is found there it’s believed to have either escaped a cultivated garden or to be a relict out of a cloister garden. In 1580 botanist Carolus Clusius incidentally mentioned that it was sold at the market in Vienna as a root vegetable;1 the plant is also mentioned in herbal books of the time. In the middle of the nineteenth century, after the potato blight had drastically reduced potato harvests and famine was widespread, parsnip chervil enjoyed a brief reprise. For example, in 1846 France reintroduced cerfeuil tubéreux as a potato substitute—but in the following decades it was again forgotten. Only some French gourmet cooks held on to it as a delicacy. The Jeunes Restaurateurs d’Europe, famous Michelin-starred chefs, make soups, chutneys, and ravioli with the tangy-sweet tuber; it’s said to taste especially good with lamb and red wine. But it can also be prepared very simply and eaten with just salt, pepper, and butter.

Parsnip chervil is an umbellifer member, a family with some 3,500 species, divided up into 300 varieties. The name “Chaerophyllum” (from the Greek chairein = to delight, phyllon = leaves) leads us to assume that the cataloguing botanists particularly admired these plants’ feathery leaves. The umbellifer family has a wide range of opposing characteristics: from tasty vegetables (carrots, parsnips, parsley root, and celery) and seasonings (caraway, parsley, anise, coriander, and chervil)2 to poisonous plants like poison hemlock and water hemlock.3 The Chaerophyllum branch also covers the entire spectrum; there are thirty-five kinds in Europe alone. On one side is edible parsnip chervil and Siberian parsnip chervil, and on the other side poisonous varieties like rough chervil (C. temulum) and widespread hairy chervil (C. hirsutum) that contain the volatile alkaloid chaerophyllin and other lesser-known poisonous substances that attack the nervous and digestive systems. For example, farm animals can go lame from eating the poisonous varieties.

Although the leaves of parsnip chervil also contain traces of this alkaloid, there are no cases of poisoning known among humans since the substance is neutralized when cooked. There are even reports that the young leaves were used in soups in earlier times. But this umbellifer is unknown as a healing plant, even by homeopaths—despite the fact that, generally speaking, umbellifers influence the glandular system, or, as anthroposophic doctors say, they “help the astral body work on the ether body.” The signature of the plant tells us that it can bring cosmic warmth down into cold, heavy regions (like water and earth). Parsnip chervil pulls blossom-like influences down into the root, which as a result becomes fruity and aromatic (Pelikan 1975, 69). If the plant can do that in the macrocosm, then it may be similarly able in the human microcosm. There are likely healing properties hidden inside this umbellifer.

My first personal experience with parsnip chervil was rather embarrassing. I was leading a plant excursion near Vienna when we came upon an umbellifer growing on the bank of a creek; it was in full bloom and had feathery leaves. The stems looked similar to those of poison hemlock—with which I am fully familiar—with its spotted reddish purple, slightly frosted stems; the bottom part of the stalks, though, had stiff, coarse, whitish bristles. The stem nodes of the mysterious plant were swollen. When the participants of the excursion asked me what kind of a plant it was, I muttered it must be a local kind of hemlock. (The plant identification book I carried offered no help.) Glancing at me with a look that said, What kind of a plant expert are you?, an elder participant went on to explain that the plant was parsnip chervil, not hemlock, and it was very edible.

Parsnip chervil is not as easy to cultivate as other vegetables are, which is likely one of the reasons it’s not often found in today’s vegetable gardens. It is sown in the fall; like carrots and parsnips, the seeds are light-dependent germinators, so they must be sown right on the surface and only lightly covered with soil, then pressed down gently. The plant is also a frost-germinator, meaning its seeds sprout in the spring only if they’ve experienced a frost. One can stratify the seeds by sowing them in pots and leaving them, protected in sand, outside over the winter, later sowing them out in March. Parsnip chervil thrives in loamy soil and does not mind a shady, moist location. It grows best in a companion planting situation with onions or leeks; this keeps the carrot flies away. Toward the end of July, when the leaves have died off, one can harvest the roots or even leave them in the ground—as long as no hungry rodents are around. If harvested, they should be kept in a very cool sand pile—best if near freezing—so they can mature in the after-ripening process. When the time comes to eat them they can be prepared as one would cook parsnips.

There is a more productive variety with a bigger tuber: the Siberian parsnip chervil (C. prescottii), which is grown in Sweden, Finland, and Siberia. In earlier times this plant was both cultivated and grew wild in potato and grain fields. The yellow root is bigger but is less aromatic, and tastes more like parsnips than like chestnuts. It seems that this variety is relatively unknown in North America and only available in special nurseries and rare seed stores. It also seems not (yet?) to have developed into an invasive weed—but only time will tell.