A range of flowers in Colins Paddock

Map of the Down

magog_trust_map_453Click on map to view at larger size.
(Opens a Pop-up window; you may have to re-size the new window and zoom in to actually see the map at a larger size!)

Wild flowers at Magog Down prev

Wild Parsnip - Pastinaca sativa

wild_parsnip_315Visiting the Down during the long dry spell this July, I was struck by the way in which some plants still stood up boldly in the otherwise parched grassland. Prominent amongst these were scattered plants of wild parsnip, proudly holding aloft their umbels of yellow flowers as if in defiance of all that the drought could do.

Wild parsnips thrive on chalky soils such as those of the Magog Down and their deep tap roots help them to withstand dry conditions. Of those roots the herbalist Gerard wrote that they were 'small, hard, woody and not fit to be eaten'. However, someone must at some time have seen their culinary potentialities as the plant has been cultivated since Roman times. The Emperor Tiberius thought so highly of parsnips that he used to have them brought to Rome from where they were cultivated on the banks of the Rhine. Careful selection led to the improvement of the cultivated forms which are rich in sugars and starch and provide a valuable source of food for both humans and their livestock. So far as I have been able to ascertain, the first named variety, 'Student', was raised in the 1840s.

In addition to their culinary attributes cultivated parsnips are reputed to have certain medicinal properties. Always on the look-out for cheap and easily accessible remedies which he could recommend to the poor folk of his day, the evangelist John Wesley, recommended that 'to ease or cure the stone' (probably stones in the bladder) one should boil half a pound of parsnips in a quart of water and drink a glass of this morning and evening. Culpepper noted that the vegetable was 'good for the stomach and reins and provoketh urine' but he thought the wild plant to be 'more medicinal' than the garden form and affirmed that it 'easeth pains and stitches in the sides and expels the wind from the stomach and bowels'.

Wesley also noted the high regard in which the wild plant was held. 'Wild parsnips', he wrote, 'both leaves and stalks, bruised, seem to have been a favourite application; and a very popular internal remedy for cancer, asthma, consumption and similar diseases'. But please don't raid the wild flora of Magog Down, however desperate you may be to expel the wind from your stomach and bowels. Better stick to the garden varieties, remembering that (in the words of the 18th Century herbalist Tournefort) 'they are not so good in any respect till they have first been nipped with cold'. Left over winter to ensure that they had been frost-nipped, parsnips were a popular vegetable eaten with salt fish during Lent. Why not try Tournefort's suggestion that they should be eaten 'with salt-fish mixed with hard boiled eggs and butter … and much the wholesomer if you eat it with mustard'.

David Yarham
September 2005

See also...

Report of the visit from Cambridge Natural History Society in August 2017


News about a visit by the local branch of Butterfly Conservation charity taking place in August 2016


News about the very special area of Colin's Bank, published in February 2015

Pasque Flower

One of our Friends sent us this beautiful picture of some Pasque Flowers taken in amongst the Cowslips in May 2016.pasqueflower_jb_may2016_crop_453

Photo by Jill Butler