Carrot Cousin

Parsnip

(Pastinaca sativa)

There are a number of carrot relatives which you can tell by the distinct umbel that forms it's inflorescence. Parsnip seed can be produced in the same manner as carrot seed. Producing your own seed allows you to have fresh seed which is important since parsnip seed tends to decline rapidly in viability. Like carrots, it's a two year process. Parsnips do not cross with carrots; however, nor Queen Anne's Lace so you'll have to worry about isolation for purity only if you are growing more than one variety or if all your neighbors are growing parsnips for seed.

Carrot's close relative...the parsnip

Carrot's close relative...the parsnip

Not likely you say? I decided to look for more than the usual two or three varieties of parsnip available in the U.S. by going to my British sources. To my amazement, parsnips must really be a big deal in England. It was easy to obtain a dozen different varieties from the Exhibition Size to tiny miniature parsnips. Hollow Crown, extended crown, wide or narrow, British growers know their parsnips. I can't understand why they're not more popular in the U.S. Harvested after frost, the roots can be sweet enough to eat them raw or in salads. I really like them oven roasted with potatoes, onions and chunks of winter squash. A great winter time feast.

Flowering parsnips

Flowering parsnips

The yellowish flowers develop earlier than carrots in the second year and the umbel remains flat as the seed ripens instead of curling up. You'll see the ripe seeds out in the open where you can easily remove them for storage.

Seeds that decrease in viability quickly should be carefully stored. In general, when you are storing garden seeds, like Bob Dylan recommends, keep them in a cool, dry place. Cool, like a refrigerator or a cool basement; dry as sealing the perfectly dry seed in a closed jar on a dry day when the humidity is low. Try and maintain a constancy of temperature. By the way, when you are saving your own seed don't seal them for storage until the seed really is dry. Dry enough to shatter, dry enough to break. I will keep seeds that I process drying on screens or in open paper bags for weeks in a dry, controlled environment. During that drying time, day temperatures in the 80's and 90's only help the process, but humidity or moisture can ruin a batch of seed and sealing seed in a container when they have not dried enough can be disastrous for the seed's survival.

Saving Carrot Seed

Genus: Daucus

Carrot (Daucus carota) Hardy biennial. Sow in the spring in the open ground. Tolerant of frosts. Roots can be harvested and root cellared for replanting and seed crops or left in the ground and mulched depending on climate. Insect pollinated. Easily crosses with wild carrot (D. carota) which will reduce root quality.

There are so many kinds of carrots: white ones, round ones, finger sized, stump rooted, red, orange, yellow and purple ones, very sweet and not so sweet. Those used in Europe for soup and livestock feed, those in Japan for pickling and then those that are great for fresh eating and snacking. If you are growing carrots for seed make sure that you start with a carrot that you really enjoy growing and which does well for you on your soil and in your climate.

Producing seed is a two year process. The first year concentrate on raising your crop for food. At the harvest, select a few of your very best roots and store over the winter at a temperature just above freezing. Depending on where you live that may mean back in the ground under a heavy mulch, in a damp cold cellar in sand or peat or in the vegetable bin of your refrigerator wrapped in a damp towel.

White carrots from a late fall planting overwintered in the root cellar

White carrots from a late fall planting overwintered in the root cellar

Plant the selected roots in early spring when the ground thaws. The carrots will produce Queen Annes Lace (wild carrot) type flowers in July and in late summer, an ample seed crop.

Queen Anne's Lace type flowers

Queen Anne's Lace type flowers

Purple and White Flowers of Carrots put on a great garden show once wintered over.

Purple and White Flowers of Carrots put on a great garden show once wintered over.

 Many kinds of insect pollinators will visit the flowers, some are known to roam over large distances and may bring pollen from wild carrot which can introduce characteristics that you don't want into your seed crop. Make sure your garden fence isn't bordered by Queen Anne's Lace. Also carrot varieties will cross with one another with ease so unless you want to experiment with developing a new carrot variety, plant only one kind.

The plant family that carrot belongs to is Apiaceae. A characteristic of the group is the particular mass of tiny flowers that it produces know as an umbel. Note how the little flower stalks radiate out from the larger ones. When the seeds begin to form, the umbel will fold inward and it becomes a kind of protective home for the seeds until they turn brown and dry. Watch carefully so that you don't loose the seeds as they ripen or when near-ripe, you can pull the plants up by the root and cover the upper stalks with a loose paper bag, and lay the whole mass on their sides in a protected place like the garage until the seed heads are thoroughly dry. Cleaning small batches of seed will require rubbing the seed heads back and forth in your hands to free the seeds and using strainers or screens of a proper size.  Inspect the seed for tiny insects that might cause damage to the stored seed.

Saving carrot seed

Saving carrot seed

Harvest carrots the first year for cream, yellow, shades of orange and purple roots in many forms.  The second year in the ground (if you prefer to let them winter over) and you will be rewarded with a great flowering bed of Queen Anne's Lace in White and Lavender shades.  You may want to embark on a breeding project to cross colorful carrots with very sweet early maturing snacking types (harvest in less than 60 days), you decide whether it would be best to harvest the carrots or enjoy the flowers. 

Colorful Carrots

 We had a lot of fun with carrots this year enjoying the rewards of harvesting carrots from the seeds we had saved from last years seed crop.  We planted rows in early spring and then again in mid summer.  The colorful carrot project began three growing seasons ago.   We planted a mix of seed of colorful carrots from several commercial seed sources:  purples and reds, yellows and whites.  We included in our mix the sweetest early maturing orange carrots we could find.  The goal was to produce early maturing (50 day) carrots that were sweet and perfect as a fresh snack in a variety of colors.  Carrots that a kid could love.  

Flanders Colorful Carrots

Flanders Colorful Carrots

Our carrot bed was planted late that first year and the carrots were rather small when the ground froze and they overwintered in place.  In spite of a harsh winter, the carrots survived in the ground and even though the roots were small, the bed was a mass of flowers in white and shades of lavender in summer of the second year; a beautiful sight.  Those carrots produced a large quantity of seed by the end of the second year.  This year we finally ate the carrots of our own seed production.  It seemed that each carrot we pulled was a new surprise.  This was especially enjoyed by my niece; Ocean, a third grader and my nephew Skye who is post high school.  They both enjoyed discovering new colors, color combinations and flavors as they pulled the carrots out of the ground and munched on them.   We had plenty to evaluate and pass out for taste testing and also plenty for replanting for another seed crop next year.  This time we dug out the carrots selecting only the fastest growing ones with the best formed roots to replant.  We didn't have any problem getting a full range of colors including some that were new and unexpected.  We decided to replant in blocks of colors to better maintain some of the colors as they continue to cross pollinate next year.  We also planted some exceptionally sweet young orange "finger-type" carrots sold locally by a specialty produce shop in an adjacent block to continue to add the genetics of sweetness and quick growth to our mix.  Planting fresh carrot roots for a seed crop is quite easy.  We remove most of the tops leaving just an inch above the root crown so that the roots can adjust to transplant shock and not lose too much water by transpiration.  They are planted in a prepared bed so that the inch of green is sticking out of the ground.  We used t-tape irrigation and 100% of our replanted carrots survived the mid summer replanting.  Now in November;  they are lush and green and will hopefully winter over well in the field.


Save Your Own Carrot Seed

Carrots are one of those biennial seed crops that seed savers often neglect.  They shouldn't though; carrots from the first year will often survive in the frozen ground through the winter with little or no protection just like Queen Anne's Lace or Wild Carrot does.  The following year the plants send up their flower stalks and produce seeds.  They take a while before they dry on the stalk folding their seeds up into a kind of basket formed from the flower called an umbel.  On a sunny day cut and transfer the folded umbels containing the brown, dry seed to an open paper bag,  it will take a few weeks of further drying before they can be thrashed and screened to produce clean seed because they are quiteprickly and even resinous and tend to clump together. 

Like carrot seed crops, we find that transferring the dry stalks of lettuce seed and branches laden with radish pods to large paper grocery bags for additional drying in a cool area for weeks or months makes it easier to produce clean seed.  Seed drops more readily from the lettuce stalks and radish pods crumble easier to release the seed.  Your seed may not look as clean as Burpee's seeds but your germination will be just as high if you keep the seed dry and cool.  What you won't get from Burpee though is the satisfaction of producing your own unique varieties.


Memories of Oxheart

Speaking of Burpee, the first carrots I ever harvested in the garden were the Oxheart carrots from Burpee Seeds in the mid 1950's.  I grew a row of them with my sister.  They were unique; by fall they were over four inches wide at the crown and six or seven inches long, tapering like a top.  These stump rooted marvels probably weighed a pound each but were strikingly beautiful.  This year I have a small row of Oxheart Carrots in another garden.  They seem to be an inferior variation of the Oxheart Carrot that I knew, the variety that was in commerce half a century ago.  Today's oxheart seem like they have been crossed with some other type of carrot and look a little like the Thumbilina carrot on steroids. Burpee devoted quite a bit of attention to variety maintenance with a staff that produced seed in house on two Burpee farms and also oversaw contract growers.  Maintaining the quality characteristics of a variety like "Oxheart" carrot is not easy to do without disciplined selection and the investment in a trained staff to rogue out off types in a field.  If it is no longer economical to market the seed, it no longer gets much attention from the grower.  

In the 50's and 60's Oxheart was a terrific storage carrot but many families were giving up their root cellars and no longer storing their winter vegetables.  Demand for the oxheart variety dropped as other varieties suited to all-year production such as Imperator and Nantes for fresh harvest and cello bag sales at the supermarket and chantenay types that went to the processed carrots increased in popularity among commercial carrot producers.  What happened during the time that oxheart was off the market has happened to other varieties of other vegetables.  My recent plantings of the Lutz beet, a similar mammoth root vegetable favored in the days of the root cellar showed similar quality problems.  Seed from two separate retail seed sources planted this year produced two very different Lutz beets.  The one that most resembled the real Lutz I remember from 30 years ago unfortunately had issues with vigor and inconsistency.  Why do I ramble about this? If Oxheart Carrot and Lutz Beet as they once existed become no more will the global food system crash.  Apparently not.  Do I have a right to complain.  Probably not.

I guess that my point is that in spite of my personal interest in garden diversity and mixing the gene pool, losing a great old variety is like losing a friend.  Oxheart Carrot and Lutz Beet are two of hundreds of wonderful old varieties that have fallen out of favor.  Seed companies who have trained staff to maintain "true to type" characteristics may feel some obligation to keep those older classics alive and well but you probably can't make much money off those "fallen" cultivars.  So where is the incentive?  Individual seed savers, commercial seed producers, government agencies and seed banks all have to play a role in preserving our seed heritage.  While individually, they all have their limitations; collectively, we hope that there will always be some seed; somewhere,  to resurrect an old friend.