Growing Turnips for a Comeback

Growing turnips helps this lowly veggie regain its most favored vegetable status.

| July/August 2012

For millennia, the turnip was one of the most popular vegetables out there, and for good reason. While potatoes have more or less cornered the market in the last hundred years, the delightful turnip’s versatility, hardiness and nutritional value are worthy of consideration.

Turnips are a member of the Brassicaceae family, a fairly large group populated by many well-known edible plants including mustard, cabbage, kale, broccoli, Chinese cabbage, Brussels sprouts, rutabaga, radish and canola (rapeseed) in addition to flowers such as alyssum, stocks and wallflowers.

There are many “groups” or variations within the Brassica genus, a fact that makes their classification confusing even to botanists. If you are saving seed from any of these species, make sure you know what plants will cross-pollinate and take care to keep them separated.

Turnips, Brassica rapa var. rapa (sometimes known as B. Campestris), include many closely related varieties that are cultivated primarily for the leaves, although their roots are prized in traditional Japanese cuisine. Other Brassica rapa members include B. rapa var. chinensis — pak choi, bok choi, tatsoi and others — and celery cabbage, known in this country as napa cabbage, B. rapa var. pekinensis. In addition to being cultivated as vegetables, specialty turnips are raised for animal fodder and oil seed.

Turnips can form swollen, rounded, somewhat flattened, or long, cylindrical taproots, with compound (indented) hairy leaves. A true biennial, the turnip requires a vernalization, or cooling period, before producing blooms and seeds in its second year. It’s uncommon that humans consume an entire plant, but these are one of the few, with both roots and greens finding homes in dishes all over the world.

Turnip variety origins

Turnips originated in the Mediterranean region and spread to the Middle East and western Asia, with European cultivation predating the Middle Ages. They still grow wild in parts of eastern Europe and western Russia. First described by Theophrastus in 400 B.C. and later by Pliny in 100 B.C., turnip cultivation was well established in Greek and Roman times and likely predates these civilizations. Ancient writers indicate that folks living in the country, particularly the poor, often utilized this vegetable.

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