Remembering our horticultural roots
While food security, seed policy and biodiversity conservation issues swirl around our heads, let’s take a break and stroll down memory lane. The least glamorous parts of Canadian history often have the strongest and longest-lasting influence on our present-day lives, and we propose that our root vegetables are unsung historical heroes that quietly shaped our country through its early centuries. Easy to grow, easy to store, reliable, and nutritious for both people and livestock, our nation was built upon the humble root vegetable. Here’s a quick glance at a heroic few.
Beets are native to Europe and Asia, and they have been cultivated there for at least 4000 years. Originally, they were
cultivated for their greens, but the Romans learned that the roots made a good livestock feed. Several varieties are still known as ‘leaf beets’ for their succulent greens, which are delicious (raw or steamed) and high in Vitamin A. Ancient beet roots were not all red: most were white or yellow, and the sweetness of table beets had not yet been obtained. Over time, sweeter and more tender roots were selected. Red varieties became common about four hundred years ago, and the modern table beet was greatly improved in Germany and France in the 19th century. Over seventy varieties of table beets are now available in many shapes, sizes and colours.
Originally, sugar beets and mangel-wurzel beets were preferred as livestock feed. They are large, fairly tough roots that contain plenty of vitamins and sugar. Since they can be stored easily in a cellar or pit, and they grow with minimal care, farmers in past centuries relied on them as an inexpensive feed for cows, pigs and other large animals.
As the demand for sugar beets increased during the 19th century, turnips gradually took their place as a cheap animal feed. Many dairy farmers, however, stuck with beets, insisting that the turnips spoiled the flavour of the milk. By the mid-1800s, sugar beets had become a major crop in Canada, and sugar refineries were operating in many communities in Ontario and Quebec.
Swiss chard is a kind of beet, though you wouldn’t know it by looking at its slender root. Like all other kinds of beet, it is descended from the wild European sea-beet, a leafy plant that was first cultivated for its greens. When the Romans learned to feed the roots to livestock, they naturally began to select varieties with larger roots, eventually breeding the modern beet. The plants cultivated for human consumption were bred for larger, tastier leaves, which led to chard.
Carrots are the most popular of all root vegetables, if you don’t count potatoes. The original wild carrot probably originated in Afghanistan, but now you can find it in most backyards. Queen Anne’s lace is the wild plant from which all carrots were developed. If you can find a small Queen Anne’s lace with no flower (just one season old), pull it up and taste it (if you dare). It tastes like a carrot, but is stronger, bitter, often branched, and much woodier. That root added a tasty flavour to the stews of countless generations of early Europeans, Africans and Asians.
By the 1300s, carrots were cultivated from Spain to China, but they still weren’t orange, tender or particularly sweet. The modern orange carrot was improved by the Dutch in the seventeenth century, and later by the French. Most carrot varieties are descended from the original 300-year-old orange strains of Imperator and Danvers, which are long and pointed, and Nantes and Chantenay, which are short and blunt.
More than ninety varieties of carrots are now commercially available in Canada.
Although nearly all are orange, a few specialty varieties draw upon the earlier strains developed in Asia and Africa more than four hundred years ago. These are often purple, yellow, or white, and usually not as sweet as the orange varieties.
The high sugar content in carrots has long been known. For this reason, alcohol was once produced with carrots. The carrot cake is one of the last remaining recipes from the Elizabethan times when carrots were used frequently in sweet dishes. Carrots have also been used as a livestock feed, though not to the same degree as rougher crops such as turnips and beets.
Parsnips are delicious but not nearly as popular as they once were.
Like its relative, the carrot, it originated as a wild root in Europe and western Asia, and has been cultivated since ancient times. The Greeks enjoyed parsnips, but they had to remove a woody shell from the root before they could eat the tender core. The well-known “hollow crown” variety, which was developed in the Middle Ages and is still grown today, does not have that woody shell.
Parsnips became very popular in England and northern Europe from about 1500–1800 in both the upper and lower classes. They were eaten with cream sauce and in pottage (herbed vegetable stew). They were used to make sugar before the sugar beet was, and to make wine and beer. They were brought to North America in 1609. Soon after, they were grown and spread by native peoples.
Parsnips were an ideal Canadian root crop, because they grow easily, store well, provide vitamins and calories, and are more cold-tolerant than carrots or beets.
All good, until potatoes became the favourite root crop of the lower classes in Britain (and especially in Ireland) and soon afterward in Canada. Parsnips retained their status among the fine diners of England and France, who considered potatoes to be ‘peasant food,’ but, everywhere else, people seem to have stopped loving parsnips. That’s too bad, because parsnips have a nutty, sweet flavour. They can be boiled, fried, baked or used in a variety of dishes. They can even be mashed or french-fried like potatoes.
There are only eight varieties of parsnip on the market in Canada, and most of them are old heritage varieties. Not surprising, since there’s been little financial opportunity for parsnip breeders for about a hundred years.
Radishes are cousins of mustard and cabbages. The bitter bite that you sometimes get from a poorflavoured cabbage is very radishy. That’s because they’re related, and they have similar biochemistry. Most people know the crispy summer radishes, but if you’ve never tried the original black-skinned radish (still available), you don’t know the sinus-clearing joy that you’re missing!
The earliest records of radishes are inscriptions on walls of Egyptian pyramids from about 2000 B.C. These walls show how the black-skinned Niger radishes were important to Egyptian society. Writings by Herodotus from around 2700 B.C. may have also been referring to radishes. Black-skinned radishes were also used by Greeks and Romans, and eaten cooked like turnips, or in a salad with honey, vinegar and salt.
It is thought that radishes were first introduced to China in around 500 B.C, and then to Japan in about 700 A.D. A huge diversity of radishes was developed in those areas. The Japanese Daikon, which the Japanese prepare in hundreds of ways, is one of the best known varieties. Daikon means “long root,” for the clear reason that the average Daikon radish is about eighteen inches long.
The familiar modern European radish was developed at the end of the seventeenth century. Originally, they were long white roots, and then, starting in the eighteenth century, round varieties were developed, followed by a red radish. Other variations included pear-shaped and flat roots, and yellow and black colours. Varieties were developed for fresh eating, cooking, medicine, winter storage and leafy greens. Some varieties were selected for their seeds, which were pressed to make radish oil, and Europeans developed fodder radishes to feed livestock. Early European settlers brought most of these to Canada, where they have been grown for centuries.
There are now more than eighty varieties of radishes available in Canada, and many of them are unchanged from the originals. You don’t see these at the grocery store, even though most seed companies sell a wide assortment of radish seeds. That’s because radishes are more popular in gardens and markets than in grocery stores.
Turnips and rutabagas are often considered to be identical. To be clear: they are different plants with different histories.
Turnips are part of the cabbage family, along with mustard and radish. Rutabagas are the result of a very rare crossbreeding of a turnip and a cabbage. This hardly ever occurs, and you couldn’t make it happen if you tried, but, over thousands of years, it has happened by chance more than once, and thanks to an unknown, enterprising seed saver sometime in history, we have rutabagas. The main physical difference between turnips and rutabagas is in their physical shape: rutabagas have a neck between the root and the leaves; turnips do not.
Turnips were probably selected from a wild root in northern Europe many thousands of years ago. The turnip was generally seen as a lower-class vegetable from ancient Roman times to the Middle Ages. The root was used medicinally to treat aliments like frozen feet, aching joints, smallpox and measles. It was used cosmetically, and was included in the ingredients of a wrinklepreventing facial mask.
Turnips became popular from the seventeenth until the nineteenth century, after the discovery that turnips could be used as a year-round livestock feed by growing them into the fall and keeping them in the ground during the winter.
In addition, the introduction of a fast-growing variety called “stubble-turnip” allowed people to feed their animals through the cold months much more easily than they could do before. By the 1800s, livestock production in Europe had improved so much, due to the humble turnip, that the additional manure allowed previously barren land to become useful.
The turnip had a key role on Canada’s early farms, as a table food in summer and winter, and as a year-round livestock feed. Seed catalogues listed dozens of varieties of turnips, for many different uses.
The rutabaga was ‘discovered’ in northern Europe, a chance cross between a turnip and a cabbage, as mentioned above. It was first recorded in 1620, in Sweden, where it was very popular, thus giving it the names ‘Swedish turnip’ and ‘swede.’ It was gradually introduced throughout Europe and North America during the 1700s and 1800s, and adopted readily in Canada because it is well suited to cool northern climates.
During the 1800s and early 1900s, rutabagas were an important livestock feed, often substituted for turnips. Only dairy farmers continued to use the traditional mangel-wurtzel sugar beets, which were said to produce better milk. Also, most people ate turnips during the winter, because they could be easily stored in cellars or in the ground. By the mid-twentieth century, soy and corn had replaced roots as a primary feed. As fresh imported vegetables displaced stored roots, and root cellars themselves became things of the past, Canadians all but stopped eating turnips and rutabagas.
There are about twenty-five varieties of turnips and rutabagas available in Canada. As you might expect, there are not a lot of new varieties, because there is little profit motive for turnip breeders these days.
Other Canadian root crops are fairly minor but interesting: salsify, Jerusalem artichoke, even peanuts. Others, of course, are anything but minor: potatoes, onions and garlic, for instance. Keep reading this magazine, and we’ll write about those another time.
Munro, Derek B. and Ernest Small. Vegetables of Canada. National Research Council of Canada, 1997.
Stuart, David C. The Kitchen Garden. London: Robert Hale Limited, 1984.
Simmonds, N.W. (Ed.), Evolution of Crop Plants. New York: Longman, 1976.