Science and Practice in Farm Cultivation (1865)
James Buckman, F.L.S., F.G.S.


FEW people who have studied the matter attentively but have arrived at the conclusion that those plants which we cultivate for their roots were not naturally endowed with the root portion of their structure either of the size or form which would now be considered as essential for a perfect crop plant. Thus the parsnip, carrot, turnip, beet, &c., as we find them in nature, have nowhere the large, fleshy, smooth appearance which belongs to their cultivated forms; and hence all the varieties of these that we meet with in cultivation must be considered as derivatives from original wild forms, obtained by cultivative processes; that is, collecting their seed, planting it in a prepared bed, stimulating the growth of the plants with manures, thinning, regulating, weeding, and such other acts as constitute farming or gardening, as the case may be.

Hence, then, it is concluded that such plants as are grown for their roots have a peculiar aptitude for laying on tissue, and thus increasing the bulk of their "descending axis," that is, that portion of their structure which grows downwards—root. Besides this, they are remarkable for their capability of producing varieties—a fact which, united with a constancy in the maintenance of an induced form, renders it exceedingly easy to bring out new sorts which will maintain their characteristics under great diversities of climate, soil, and treatment.

The facility with which different sorts of roots may be procured can readily be understood from the many varieties, not only of turnip — which may perhaps be considered as an original species-but also of swede, which is a hybrid of the turnip and rape plant. Of the former we have more than thirty sorts grown by the farmer, and as many peculiar to the garden; whilst there are probably more than twenty well-recognized sorts of swedes. Of beets, with mangel-wurzel, we have almost as great a variety; so also of carrots. Of parsnips we have fewer varieties, to which may now be added the new form called the Student parsnip, the growth of which is so interesting that we shall here give a short history of its production, as an illustration of the origin of root crops.

Figures 1 and 2.—Roots of Wild Parsnips.

In 1847 we collected some wild parsnip seed from the top of the Cotteswolds, where this is among the most frequent of weeds. This seed, after having been kept carefully during the winter, was sown in a prepared bed, in the spring of 1848, in drills about eighteen inches apart. As the plants grew they were duly thinned out, leaving for the crop, as far as it could be done, the specimens that had leaves with the broadest divisions, lightest colour, and fewest hairs. As cultivated parsnips offer a curious contrast with the wild specimens in these respects, we place the following notes, side by side, on the root-leaves of plants of the same period of growth.

  Ft. in.     Ft. in.
Whole length from the base of the petiole to the apex of the leaf 0 8   Whole length from the base of the petiole to the tip of the leaf 2 0
Breadth of leaflets 0 3/4   Breadth of leaflets 3 1/4
Length of leaflets 0 1   Length of leaflets 0 1/4
Petiole and leaflets, hairy. Colour, dark green.       Petiole and leaflets without hair. Colour, light green.    

We have before remarked that neither in size nor form are the wild roots at all comparable with the cultivated ones. Our figures 1 and 2 were taken from fine roots of the wild parsnip of the first year's growth; that is to say, just at the same time as a crop parsnip would be at its best. They were purposely taken from specimens obtained from the same district as the seed with which our experiments were commenced.

Our first crop of roots from the wild seed presented great diversities in shape, being for the most part even more forked than the originals, but still with a general tendency to fleshiness. Of these the best shaped were reserved for seeding; and having been kept the greater part of the winter in sand, some six of the best were planted in another plot for seed. The seed, then, of 1849 was sown in the spring of 1850, in a freshly-prepared bed, the plants being treated as before, the results showing a decided improvement, with tendencies in some examples in the following directions:—

These three forms were all of them much misshapen, with forked roots, that is, fingers and toes; but still each of them offered opportunities of procuring three original varieties from this new source.

As an example of progress, we offer the following engraving of a specimen of our Round-topped parsnip of 1852. Fig. 3.

This it will be seen has strong, fleshy forks, and a tendency, to form divided tap-roots; otherwise the shape is greatly improved, and the skin is tolerably smooth.

At this time our stock was for the most part fleshy and soft on boiling; the flavour, too, though much stronger than that of the usual esculent parsnip, was rather agreeable than otherwise.

This matter of flavour is a subject of interest, as most lovers of the parsnip, as a garden esculent, had got to complain of this root becoming more and more tasteless. That this was so our own experience most fully confirms; we have now, however, mended this root very materially in this respect.

Our experiments were only carried on with examples of the Hollow-crowned form, which following out from year to year, we at length obtained so perfect in form, clean in outline, delicate in skin, and unexceptionable in flavour, that we were induced to cause its seed to be distributed through the medium of the trade.

In 1861 we sowed a parcel of seed in our own garden obtained from the Messrs. Sutton, after having received from them the following notes upon the growth of the roots in their grounds:—

We are happy to tell you that in lifting some of each of all the varieties of parsnips in our trial-ground, your "Student" was decidedly the best shape, varying in length, but always clean and straight.

Fig. 3—Round-topped Parsnip, five generations from wild root. Fig. 4.—Student Parsnip of 1861.

The engraving (Fig. 4) is taken from our garden stock of 1861, as being a common shape of this new variety. It is not quite so long and slender as the usual Long-horned parsnip, but its clean unbranched outline and solidity of structure recommend it as a good variety, whilst its flavour has been highly extolled by the lover of this, to some, favourite root. In size it is scarcely large enough for a field crop, but though not at present recommended for the farm, its history may well serve to explain the origin of crop plants, as derived from the cultivation and improvement of wild species.*

* It may here be noted that the Student parsnip took the first prize for this root at the International Show at the Horticultural Society's Gardens in 1862.