For the Love of Turnips

Thu, Nov 14, 2019 4-minute read

The Poet William Stafford spent part of his career writing a poem a day, when asked how he managed that he replied “I lowered my standards”. I have no clue if this actually happened or not, but the advice rings true for me.

I’ve been meaning to put more content up on the site but I haven’t, because every time I sit down I start playing around with the title, then deciding on just the right image, then start writing and freeze up when I realize I haven’t done enough of research on the subject. The most important in blogging is to sit down and blog.

So I’m going to try to get 2-3 posts out a week, even if its nothing more than chatting about what I did in the garden today. Even if I create a bunch of completely useless fluff I’ll still have improved my comfort level with writing these posts.

So to kick things off I’m going to talk about Turnips.

I know painfully little about the origin, spread, and historical diversity of the humble Turnip Brassica rapa. Its not that I haven’t tried, Google, Google Scholar, American Journal of Botany, even pestering my girlfriend to use the paper search at her college, and nothing much turns up. So I’ll start with what little I do know, then why I love this quirky little root vegetable.

Turnips were domesticated from a wild precursor sometime before the 15th century BCE, likely in or near modern India. It was known to be used in India for its seeds, which can be processed for oil. It became well established in the Mediterranean some time before the Hellenistic period where it was actually used as a root vegetable. For most of European history the turnip was mostly used as a fodder crop, occasionally becoming popular here or there as a food crop. Generally people ate turnips during periods of scarcity, and when these periods came to an end they were left with dishes that had wormed their way into the culture.

Somewhere in this process Turnips were crossed with cabbages and produced the Rutabaga/Swede. Also at some point varieties were produced to be eaten as leaf crops.

One definitive piece of Turnip history that we actually have solid documentation of is the development of Japanese Salad Turnips. Salad turnips were intentionally developed by Japanese agricultural programs to improve crop varieties after World War 2. These turnips were grown to be more palatable raw, and are both amazing and something I only recently discovered.

So from all the vague language you can see how little I have been able to find out. If you, my dear reader, know anything more than I do on this subject please share in the comments or contact me directly. You can also call into the voicemail line for the podcast at ‪(661) 368-5177‬. I’d appreciate any references or pointers I could get, especially about the history of the spread of turnips through Asia, and the history of different turnip varieties.

But why do I love them? Their attractive little plants, with a large rosette of leaves, and a nice chunky root beneath. I love the complex slightly bitter flavor. And I also love that I can grow two crops of turnip in a season, one in spring and one in fall. It goes great with Lamb or Haggis, and is a key ingredient in my favorite Lamb and Stout stew.

The only downside is that there just isn’t a large amount of diversity. You have three four primary types with just a few varieties of each.

Fodder turnips, like the Barkant variety, are grown primarily for their nutritive quality, dry matter content, and ability to produce easily accessed roots proud of the ground.

Conventional turnips, like the classic Purple Top, are grown for attractive round roots, complex slightly bitter flavor, and secondarily for their edible tops that require cooking. They make a great salad turnip if picked young.

Leaf Turnips, like the Seven Top variety, which produce inadequate roots, but softer, denser, more palatable leaves.

And Japanese Salad Turnips, like the Hakurei variety, which were developed to combine the superior greens of the Leaf varieties, and pair that with thin skinned roots with little to no bitterness.

A fifth-ish variety is the Rutabaga, which isn’t a turnip but is used almost exactly like one. Rutabagas are larger, less smooth, less bitter, and has leaves with a more kale/cabbage like texture. Rutabagas are a long season crop that doesn’t require particularly great soil to produce. Rutabagas can be stored over the winter if waxed.

It may not be the most fashionable crop, or the most Instagram-ready, but its an old standby that ads a zing to your stew or mash. Sneak in a crop somewhere and make sure you use these beauties.