Parsnips Delicious, But Greens Can Burn

Oct 12, 2017

Parsnip greens can cause a chemical burn when they react with skin and sunlight.
Credit Elspeth Hay

Many farmers think of parsnips as an underappreciated vegetable—they're sweet, tasty, and they store well. But this week on the Local Food Report, Elspeth Hay learns that growing them isn't as easy as it seems—and that other wild relatives may pose a risk as well.

EH: Recently at the farmers market I ran into my friend Drake Cook, they’re a farmer in Truro. Drake had small but noticeable burn marks all over their arms, and I asked Drake what had happened.

DC: The burn is called phytophotodermatitis.

EH: So this is something that I’ve never heard of before. You were burned by a parsnip.

DC: Yeah, it’s a chemical burn, and it’s any plant in the apiaceae family, which is all those umbel plants, dill…

EH: Umbel?

DC: Umbrella form. So if you see Queen Anne’s Lace, that’s an umbel, and that’s actually wild carrot. And parsnip has a wild variety, wild parsnip, which looks pretty much like Queen Anne’s lace, sharper leaves, and yellow flowers instead of white, and those ones are really poisonous.

EH: This is a lot to absorb. I’ve been walking around my backyard for years bumping into Queen Anne’s lace and who knows what else in the apiaceae plant family. I asked Drake— what does this mean for us as eaters and foragers and gardeners and how easy it is to get burned? Drake says whether or not phytophotodermatitis happens and how serious it is depends on a lot of factors.

DC: The burn only happens if the sap interacts with sunlight.

EH: Apparently the sap of both wild and domestic parsnips, celery, parsley, carrots, lemons, figs, limes, and a few other plants has chemical compounds called furanocoumarins. FURE ANNA COO MAR IN When you’re picking these plants or brushing up against them and you break the greens, the stalk oozes this chemical. And if the sun is strong, and it touches your skin while you’re outside, it triggers the reaction. At first the spot looks like a bruise and eventually it turns into blisters. People’s sensitivity to the compound varies. But for Drake, this year’s parsnips were a perfect storm.

DC: So this year I started them a lot earlier than in years past, so in August when I did my first harvest, they were a lot bigger than they usually are in August, so the sun was a lot stronger when I picked them, and the branches of the leaves were a lot more vigorous.

EH: The bigger the plants the more developed the compound and the stronger the sun, the stronger the burn. Needless to say Drake will be wearing full body gear from now on during parsnip harvests. But they say they’re not willing to stop growing them altogether—because despite the risk, there are so many wonderful things to do with parsnips.

DC: I like to cut them up in cubes and roast them with carrots and beets and other root vegetables, or I like to fry them up on the frying pan.

EH: I make a really good creamy parsnip soup—parsnips are peppery but when you roast them with maple syrup and puree them with chicken stock and a little bit of cream you get a slightly sweet and delicious soup.

DC: I have juiced them before and when you juice them they taste like eggnog, so if you’re looking for a vegan eggnog alternative this holiday season I suggest juiced parsnips.

Parsnips are full of surprises. 

Drake Cook trimming parsnip greens.
Credit Elspeth Hay

RECIPES

Creamy Maple Parsnip Bisque

This recipe comes from a version Elspeth found in Yankee Magazine about ten years ago. She's adapted it slightly to take advantage of local ingredients, and it's delicious on a cool fall day. This recipe makes a fairly big batch of soup and serves 8-10 people easily. 

2 and 1/2 pounds parsnips, peeled and quartered

1/4 cup olive oil or melted butter

1 teaspoon fine grain sea salt, plus extra to taste

1/2 cup maple syrup

up to 8 cups chicken stock

2 to 2 and 1/2 cups heavy cream

Heat the oven to 350 degrees F. On a rimmed baking sheet, toss the parsnips with the oil or melted butter, salt, and 1/4 cup maple syrup. Roast about 30 minutes, until parsnips are golden and tender. When the parsnips are done put them in a large soup pot. Add 5-6 cups chicken stock to start. Bring everything to a boil. Puree with an immersion blender, adding more stock as needed. (Remember, it's easier to thin soup than thicken it, and you're also going to add cream.) Add 2 cups cream and simmer another 10 minutes, adding more stock and/or cream as desired. Season with sea salt to taste and serve piping hot.