Carrot vs. Parsnip: What Are Their Differences?

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Written by Elizabeth Bradshaw

Published: October 23, 2022

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Carrots and parsnips are both root vegetables that grow underground. Closely related members of the Apiaceae family, they are similar in size, shape, texture, and even taste. They thrive in the same climate and are biennial crops. This means the plant begins to produce seed on the second annual cycle. Although alike in many ways, some characteristics separate the two root vegetables.

What are the six key differences between carrots and parsnips?

Comparing Carrots and Parsnips

Carrots and parsnips are both root vegetables that grow underground.
CarrotParsnip
Plant ClassificationDaucus carotaPastinaca sativa
DescriptionRoot vegetables which grow underground. The familiar orange flesh of the carrot is the taproot of the biennial plant. Both leaves and stems of the carrot are also edible. Long green stalks resembling parsley hold aloft feathery leaf clusters referred to as carrot greens. Carrots are grown and eaten on every continent.   Parsnip is a root vegetable characterized by its long thick cream colored fleshy root with a thin tapered end. A rosette of foliage grows above ground with clusters of small yellow flowers blooming in the second year.
UsesCarrots are a versatile ingredient. From soups and salads to stews, casseroles, and even cake, carrots can be enjoyed raw, boiled, steamed, roasted, or grilled. Carrot juice is a popular health drink, and carrot leaves are a nutritious addition to salads.Harvested once a year in late autumn or early winter, the root vegetable is used to bulk up soups and stews, complement meat dishes, and is enjoyed roasted or grilled. Eating parsnip raw is not common. Parsnip was frequently grown as a livestock foodstuff. 
OriginCarrots originated in Persia, cultivated for their aromatic leaves and seeds. The rich purple root vegetable was introduced to Europe and China by the 1300s. By the 1500s, the common carrot was predominantly orange.The parsnip is native to Eurasia and, despite its dense woody texture, was used as a sweetener prior to the introduction of sugar cane. According to literary sources, the vegetable was already being cultivated in Roman times.
GrowingSlow to germinate, shoots may not appear for three weeks. Sown in shallow drills no more than 1 inch deep, the vegetable prefers loose, sandy soil. Most carrot varieties take 50 – 75 days to grow to maturity; however, the roots are edible as baby carrots so harvest can occur as little as 2 months after planting.Parsnips prefer slightly acidic soil. Sandy earth with no impediments like rocks which can cause the root to grow disfigured or split in two. Parsnip crops are harvested annually.
Fact87% of a carrot is water!Parsnips are proven to prevent the release of ghrelin, the hormone responsible for making you hungry. At just 100 calories in a serving, parsnips are among the best vegetables for weight loss.

The Key Differences Between Carrots and Parsnips:

The key differences between carrots and parsnips include classification, uses, origin, health benefits, and pest control.

As we can see, there are many similarities between carrots and parsnips, including growing habitat, uses, and even how the two look. But what about the many characteristics that separate the root vegetables? Here are 6 of the key differences between carrots and parsnips:

Carrot vs. Parsnip: Classification

Carrots were unintentionally introduced and spread as a weed during European colonization.

Carrots and parsnips both belong to the Apiaceae family. This group of aromatic plants, Apium, is known as the carrot, celery, or parsley family or collectively as umbellifers. Characterized by disc-shaped collections of tiny flowers on long stalks known as ‘umbels,’ the family contains more than 3,700 plants, including some toxic or poisonous plants like giant hogweed.

Carrot vs. Parsnip: Uses

Carrots are a delicious, nutritious foodstuff. You’ll find examples of traditional recipes containing carrots from all over the world and in many cuisines. An ideal flavor for soup, a versatile base for stews, and even enjoyed raw in a homemade carrot and cabbage slaw, this one root vegetable ticks many boxes.

Parsnip is traditionally known for its poor flavor. Still, the culinary arts world has recently taken the root under its wing, transforming the woody taste with complimentary earthy and umami flavors. It has many uses in the kitchen, from buttery garlic parsnip to warming parsnip soup. You can expect to see more parsnips on the menu in the future!  

Carrot vs. Parsnip: Origin

Carrots were originally cultivated for their aromatic leaves and seeds, similar to the history of related herbs like parsley, cumin, and cilantro. Evidence from classical texts points to the 1st century AD when the root was first mentioned as a foodstuff. Dutch vegetable breeders are responsible for the huge variety of colors and shapes. Carrots were unintentionally introduced and spread as a weed during European colonization. Today, the United States is the 4th biggest producer of carrots in the world, growing an average of 17 million tonnes a year.  

Parsnip originated in Europe and has been cultivated for even longer than carrots, with records dating from the 1st century AD. It is said that Roman Emperor Tiberius adored the parsnip, regularly importing parsnips from France, where the colder climate lent a sweeter taste to the root vegetable. British colonizers introduced the parsnip to the US in the 1600s, where the hardy root, having escaped the farm, now grows wild.   

Carrot vs. Parsnip: Health Benefits

Carrots are packed with essential vitamins and minerals; one serving of carrots can contain up to 70% of the daily requirement of Vitamin A. Carrots are linked to improved vision, better eye health, boosted liver function, immune system health, and lower blood pressure.

Parsnips contain both soluble and insoluble fiber, which helps maintain a healthy gut and may aid weight loss. A powerful source of antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals, parsnips are rich in potassium and are often prescribed to those with deficiencies.

Carrot vs. Parsnip: Health Concerns

Carrots are good for you, but eating too many can cause health problems. A build-up of beta-carotene, the molecule responsible for the bright orange color of modern carrots, can result in patches of yellow or orange appearing on your skin. Although harmless, the condition called carotenemia is unsightly and may arise in toddlers due to excess carrot-based baby foods and juices.  

Parsnips, although a healthy, nutritious vegetable, come with their own health warning. Too many parsnips may cause nausea and cramps. This is due to high levels of potassium in the blood, which can lead to a condition called hyperkalemia. Characterized by low energy levels and fatigue, hyperkalemia affects heart muscles causing palpitations and chest pain.

Carrot vs. Parsnip: Special Ingredient

Crop rotation is essential to avoid recurring diseases.

Both carrots and parsnips contain a substance called falcarinol. Responsible for the bitterness sometimes detected in the root vegetables, falcarinol is a natural fungicidal produced by the plant to protect itself. Studies have found falcarinol may have a sedative effect on humans. Falcarinol is serotonergic, meaning it has an influence over levels of serotonin, the feel-good chemical. It may also inhibit tumor development in patients with cancer.  

Carrot vs. Parsnip: Controlling Pests

The aptly named carrot fly is the number one enemy of the carrot. Attracted by the strong aroma emitted by the plant, the carrot fly lays its eggs on the soil around the plant. Larvae produce maggots that tunnel under the roots and eat their way through the fleshy vegetable, reducing your crop to inedible and misshapen waste.

Parsnip is also affected by the carrot fly. In addition, pests, aphids, cutworms, leaf miners, and other ants attack the plant and cause leaf wilt, mildew, canker, and rot. Parsnips are vulnerable to fungal pathogens, blight, viruses, and disease.

Crop rotation is essential to avoid recurring diseases. Companion planting carrots and parsnips with garlic, onion, chives, and pungent herbs like rosemary helps to deter pests and improves the yield of fresh, healthy, and tasty garden produce.

Carrot vs. Parsnip: Advantages

Planting a row of carrots every two weeks starting in spring guarantees a supply of the vegetable all year long. Carrots, as an ingredient, transition through the seasons well and are best eaten warm in winter in soups and stews and raw in summer in salads and slaws. 

Parsnips may be stored underground all winter and harvested when needed, making them an ideal crop for the farmhouse.   

Special Features of Carrot vs. Parsnip

closeup cow parsnip

Parsnip is also affected by the carrot fly.

Carrots come in many colors, from the familiar orange to white or cream, bright pink, red, deep purple, and black. Using color segregation techniques, a new rainbow variety produces many colors from the same seeds. Interestingly, all of these varieties are still orange on the inside.

Parsnip may grow monotone in cream color, but the deep, nutty flavor adds an extra layer of taste to umami dishes. Complimented by potatoes, carrots, and other root vegetables, parsnip is an essential part of the meal during winter celebrations like Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Carrot vs. Parsnip: Overview

One is thick, cream-colored, and harvested yearly. The other comes in a wide variety of colors, shapes, and sizes. Carrots and parsnips may be closely related in the same plant family, but when considered for growing and eating, they both offer interesting individual characteristics worth exploring.

Whether you enjoy growing long drills of brightly colored carrots or peeling and roasting parsnips for dinner, these two root vegetables complement the kitchen garden and table perfectly.  

Other Differences Include:

Color: Carrots are a colorful crop with varieties of yellow, red, pink, purple, white, and black. Extensive selective breeding means carrots even come in different shapes, such as little round balls.

In contrast, the long, slender taproot of the parsnip is uniformly cream-colored, and the root is always a traditional triangular shape.

Taste: Both vegetables are predominantly enjoyed with savory dishes. Although carrot is one of the sugariest vegetables, parsnip has a sweeter taste than carrot, especially when harvested after a winter frost. Carrots are sweet too, tasting close to a sweet potato, while parsnips are woodier with a mild hint of earthy spices like nutmeg.  

Uses: Due to its high sugar content, carrot is often added to sweet courses such as cakes and puddings. Carrot juice is a popular sweet vegetable drink. Conversely, parsnip is a savory ingredient, rarely found in any dessert dishes.

Leaves: Carrot leaves are a delicious ingredient in their own right, served raw in salads, lightly sautéed, or blended with garlic and oil into a fresh carrot green pesto.

The stems, leaves and foliage of the parsnip plant are not edible due to high concentrations of furanocoumarins, toxic chemical compounds produced by plants as a defensive mechanism. 

Grows: Due to their high yield, impressive-looking varieties, and relatively accessible growing process, carrots are among the most planted root vegetable crops in gardens and allotments.

Parsnips, in comparison, are an underrated vegetable. Perhaps due to their plain and unadorned aesthetic, they are not as celebrated in the garden as carrots. 

Harvest: Carrots have a quick growth cycle and may be ready in just 2 months after planting. They can also be planted most of the year except in deep winter. This means harvest can start in early spring and go on until late autumn. Parsnips have a longer growing cycle and are harvested once a year only, in late autumn or early winter.

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About the Author

I'm a freelance writer based in the west of Ireland. When not tending to my messy, overgrown vegetable garden, you'll find me trawling the beaches for flotsam and jetsam, campervanning in some remote location or writing about sustainability and the environment in our tiny home by the sea. Favourite plant: sea holly, favourite fruit: gooseberry, favourite flower: the wild purple orchid that blooms in bog and brush all over the county.

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