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Graham Rice on Trials

Updates on trials and awards from the Royal Horticultural Society by Graham Rice

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Award winning parsnips

Posted by Graham Rice on 23 Dec 2009 at 12:02 PM

Parsnip 'Albion' - Award of Garden Merit at the Wisley trialAs a staple of Christmas Dinner, this seemed a good moment to take a look at the awards that came out of  this year's parsnip trial at Wisley. Twenty one different varieties were grown, from old and familiar names like ‘Tender and True' to the very latest F1 hybrids. Ten were given Awards of Garden Merit (AGM).

Seed was sown on 21 April at 2.5cm/1in intervals in rows 16in/40cm apart. And here's a crucial part of the growing regime: the whole crop was covered with Enviromesh as protection against root fly. It was briefly removed for thinning the seedlings to 3in/7.5cm in June, again once for weeding, and finally removed in September. The result: it proved very successful in keeping off the root fly.Enviromesh covering parsnips, protection against root fly. Image ©

By the end of September the crop was ready to harvest although most gardeners will leave their parsnips in the ground and use them as needed. They will continue to bulk up in to the autumn.

Almost half the entries were given AGMs, a testament to the progress in breeding parsnips in recent years. New award winners were: ‘Albion' (above): a uniform crop of unusually white, smooth-skinned roots; ‘Archer': good for the village Parsnip 'Lancer' - Award of Garden Merit at the Wisley trialshow as well as the table; ‘Lancer' (left): short, slender roots, ideal for baby-root crops; ‘Palace': good quality roots, with canker resistance; ‘Panache': very evenly tapered roots with smooth skins; ‘Picador': less tapered than many, so with more bulk per root.

Four varieties which received the AGM in 1993 or 2001 were still considered good enough to retain their award. ‘Cobham Improved Marrow': elegant tapering roots and canker resistant; ‘Dagger': smooth roots with a shallow crown mean easy cleaning; ‘Gladiator'; the first F1 hybrid still has star quality; ‘Javelin'; another easy-to-wash variety with canker resistance.

Finally, amongst those no longer considered of Award of Garden Merit standard was ‘Tender and True'. The expert panel of assessors considered that this was now outclassed, having been superseded by more modern varieties, but that it continued to sell well because of its appealing name.

It's also worth noting that all the top varieties are F1 hybrids except ‘Cobham Improved Marrow' and ‘Lancer'. However, unlike many crops, the price difference between open-pollinated and F1 Hybrid varieties is relatively small so seed price need not be a serious factor in choosing varieties.

Hoping you're enjoying home-grown Christmas parsnips. If not, you know which varieties to try for next year.


miranda said:

I adore parsnips! I grew 'White Gem' and 'Hollow Crown'  this year, and was pleased with them, but will certainly look at the varieties you've mentioned here.

We had some shop-bought parsnips when visiting friends and they were sad, flavourless things. I don't understand how such a delicious vegetable can become so tasteless. What do they do to them?

on 23 Dec 2009 at 12:48 PM

Graham Rice said:

Probably too much water while they were growing and too long drying out on the shelf in the supermarket.

on 23 Dec 2009 at 05:46 PM

Arrem said:

Graham,  I cannot comment on the way crops are grown but I will challenge your statement regarding the amount of time they spend "drying out on the shelf in the supermarket".  Delivered overnight and put on display straight way, they are no longer on the shelves there as they might be at our local grocer or farm shop.

But that said, there is no substitute for the freshness of your own crops straight from the garden.

on 02 Jan 2010 at 09:53 AM

Graham Rice said:

Fair enough, most produce certainly goes on sale more quickly after harvest than it used to - even when it comes from southern Europe or Africa - and travels in better conditions. But you still sometimes see root crops in particular which when you look closely have clearly been on display for too long. Either way - grown your own for the best flavour.!

on 02 Jan 2010 at 01:04 PM

bogweevil said:

Consider the life of the commercial parsnip:  They are grown by large companies who have invested heavily in the best packing and processing houses to meet the requirements of supermarkets (other sales outlet volumes are quite low in comparison).

Few growers have enough land to keep such expensive packhouses busy so land is rented in a 60+ mile radius.  The soil is well drained and fertile to grow beautifully tender roots.  These might well have a slightly diluted flavour compared to those grown at home.  This won’t please people who prefer the robust texture and taste of home-grown parsnips that have often led a much harsher life.  Irrigation is seldom used on commercial parsnips – land-to-rent with irrigation is in short supply and parsnips are rather unresponsive to irrigation.

At harvesting parsnips will have to be taken by lorry for up to 60 miles or so to be washed and packed.  The ‘nips could go through the packhouse quite quickly, but clearly it will take a day or two to load, deliver and distribute the crop.

In winter frost or rain may halt the lifting machines for days or weeks at a time.   The packhouse has to have enough roots in hand to keep the shelves stocked for several days; traditionally three weeks stock will be stored in a frost free shed, but modern machinery and methods should be more resilient than older methods.  Therefore whether the supermarket displays stock promptly or not (and supermarket produce areas are all-too-often ‘crimes against horticulture’) parsnips may very well not be freshly lifted once they reach the shelves.

I would question whether this matters too much – the difference in flavour between a supermarket parsnip and a home grown will be much less marked than say, between tomatoes or salads.  Indeed on our allotment site of 167 plotholders only 3-4 people grow parsnips or indeed any winter crops, sticking to summer produce – they have, in effect, voted with their trowels.

on 04 Jan 2010 at 03:21 PM