Heirloom Radish Varieties

Learn about heirloom radish varieties, how to grow them and why they used to be served with every meal.

September 19, 2013

By William Woys Weaver

Heirloom Vegetable Gardening by William Woys Weaver is the culmination of some thirty years of first-hand knowledge of growing, tasting and cooking with heirloom vegetables. A staunch supporter of organic gardening techniques, Will Weaver has grown every one of the featured 280 varieties of vegetables, and he walks the novice gardener through the basics of planting, growing and seed saving. Sprinkled throughout the gardening advice are old-fashioned recipes — such as Parsnip Cake, Artichoke Pie and Pepper Wine — that highlight the flavor of these vegetables. The following excerpt on heirloom radish varieties was taken from chapter 31, “Radishes.”

Buy the brand new e-book of Weaver’s gardening classic in the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: Heirloom Vegetable Gardening.

'Black Spanish Winter' Radish
'China Rose' Radish
'Early Purple' Radish
'Early Yellow' Radish
'Madras Podding' Radish 
'Philadelphia White Box' Radish
'Rat-Tailed' Radish
'White Icicle' Radish
'Wood's Frame' Radish
How to Pickle Radishes

To locate mail order companies that carry these heirloom radish varieties, use our Custom Seed and Plant Finder. Check out our collection of articles on growing and harvesting heirloom vegetables in Gardening With Heirloom Vegetables.

A Brief History of Heirloom Radish Varieties

Heirloom Radish Varieties

Radishes are now more popular in Oriental-style cooking than in mainstream American cookery. This is a vegetable that formerly played an important role in our diet, only to be relegated today to the status of a garnish, like sprigs of parsley and bits of sliced olive. Yet radishes once appeared on the early American table at every meal. I can recall many old Pennsylvania Dutch relatives who lamented the fact that people had stopped serving radishes for breakfast. A glance at seed lists from the nineteenth century would certainly support this, for there were radishes for every imaginable culinary situation, including a whole class of radishes bred exclusively to withstand the summer heat.

Radishes are grouped botanically under Brassicaceae, and are therefore part of the same vegetable clan as cabbages, turnips, watercress, rocket, and garden cress. All of these plants have very similar seed pods, so the logic for this grouping is probably more obvious to gardeners than to people who only see the vegetables in markets. Anyone who frequents American farm markets will notice immediately that the greatest variety of radishes will be found in the Asian section, even though we have a large and impressive list of our own heirloom varieties to draw on. Unfortunately, growers have not yet rediscovered them, and I think they would be quite surprised to know that the list of surviving heirlooms is huge, so choices are not limited. Best of all, since radishes are short-lived annuals, they will thrive in most parts of the country regardless of extreme winter or summer temperatures. They are also one of the easiest vegetables to grow in home gardens.

The oldest documentation of the radish takes us back to Asia in the form of literary references and archaeological remains in North China. From Asia the radish gradually moved westward, more or less following large human migrations. Ancient Greek travel writer Herodotus planted the long-held belief that the early Egyptians grew radishes, but Egyptologists have exploded this for several reasons. Herodotus could not read hieroglyphics, and if he could he would have been hard put to find one for the radish, or for radish used in the context of the inscription he claimed to have seen on a pyramid. The word for radish did not exist in Egyptian until the radish was introduced to Egypt by the Greeks. In all likelihood, the Greeks came in contact with the radish via India or with trade across the Black Sea. They were well acquainted with it long before the Egyptians and recognized many distinct varieties.

Galen of Pergamon (A.D. 129–199) wrote that radishes were eaten raw with salt and vinegar, and that the poor cooked the stems and leaves. The codex of Dioskorides, which I have mentioned many times already, contains the earliest surviving botanical picture of a radish, a long-rooted sort with fully developed seed pods. It is not surprising that physicians like Galen or Dioskorides would take note of the radish; it was considered a very important food with high medical value. It is now known that radishes are rich in vitamin C (the leaves even more so), which would explain why radishes were used to prevent scurvy or eaten as a remedy for colds. This medical theme was carried down through the Middle Ages. In the Anglo-Saxon leechdoms of England, there were over twenty references to the medical uses of the radish, including its efficacy in warding off a woman’s chatter and for depression. The superne raedic often mentioned in that period is thought to be a large white variety something akin to the daikon radish of today, or more likely, to the white-skinned form of Long Black Spanish.

The small, round radishes that are now common in supermarkets are not of ancient origin. Even in the 1500s, when radish culture began to shift to newer sorts, the most common varieties were the old large-rooted ones, shaped like elongated beets. The Long Black Spanish is a survivor of this older type and is definitely of medieval origin. By the late 1500s small, round varieties began to appear in Holland and Italy. A white variety bred by the Dutch became very popular in many parts of Northern Europe as a winter radish. The Philadelphia White Box Radish is a direct lineal descendant of this old Dutch sort. Out of Italy came the round red radishes that are associated with late spring and early fall planting.

The long, fingerlike radishes, sometimes called icicle radishes, were developed in the 1600s and first appeared in physic gardens rather than in vegetable gardens, so their dates of introduction are quite well documented in period medical archives. A long purple and a long red variety appeared in the 1670s, and by the 1680s they were being grown in Scotland and England. The Early Scarlet Short Top traces to this period and was a radish of choice among the wealthy because it could be grown in large numbers under cold frames. The long, narrow shape permitted kitchen gardeners to pack the plants close together, especially if they were grown in heavy sand.White Skinned Radish

The Abbé Rozier discussed numerous eighteenth-century radishes in his agricultural encyclopedia, dividing them out by shape, color, and place of origin. He followed the French practice of identifying radishes by the provinces or towns where they were most extensively cultivated or were presumed to have originated, with a very large division between the types of radishes grown in the Midi and those cultivated for market around Paris. There were also certain noblemen who tinkered with horticulture and who perfected radishes in their châteaux gardens. These popular French varieties carried aristocratic names that were quickly dropped during the French Revolution. All of this adds up to chaos when trying to sort out which radish was which and how they may relate to later sorts. However, when the radishes crossed the Channel and acquired English names, the work of identifying heirloom sorts becomes much easier, since the English names were also used in early America.

The lists of radishes found in our early seed catalogs are quite extensive and reveal a heavy reliance on England for seed. Pragmatically, a kitchen gardener could maintain three types, a spring, a summer, and a fall or winter radish, thus supplying the table over the course of the season. The yellow radishes (all shapes) were most generally grown for summer use because of their slowness to bolt. E. G. Storke’s Family, Farm and Gardens (1860, 130) selected six of the many varieties of radish then available because they were considered best suited to small kitchen gardens. I have listed them below in Storke’s order of preference. The comments are mine.

  1. Early Scarlet Short Top, a long, narrow variety popular for its earliness.
  2. Early Salmon Short Top, a pink variety recommended by Amelia Simmons in 1796.
  3. Red Turnip, the round type most common today. It was preferred in this country because, true to its ultimate Italian origin, it would bear the heat better in late spring and early summer.
  4. White Turnip, the round white type of Dutch origin, almost exclusively a winter radish.
  5. Yellow Summer, a round yellow variety still available.
  6. Black Winter or Spanish, a long-rooted, coarse radish that withstands frost.

Growing Radishes

H. L. Barnum’s Farmer’s Own Book (1836, 73) offered this practical suggestion for growing radishes:

They should be sown every two weeks, from April to August, to insure a succession of crops. They may be sown broadcast, or in drills, not too thick, as the tops would run up too much, and the roots be stringy. They should stand from two and a half, to five inches apart, the seed should be covered from half an inch to an inch deep, according to the weather or season. In dry weather, water them freely — this swells the roots, and makes them crisp. To prevent worms, take equal parrs of buckwheat bran, and fresh horse dung, and mix well with the ground — in forty-eight hours fermentation, and a crop of toad stools will be produced. Dig the ground over — sow the seed — they will grow rapidly and be free of insects. Leaves of radish are often used as salad; and the green pods are pickled, as substitutes for capers. Old radishes are indigestible, and render the breath bad.

It is rare to find so much useful information on radish culture condensed into such a succinct snippet, and odd as it may seem, Barnum’s enthusiasm for fermenting dung to sterilize the soil is brilliant, cheap, and effective. It will work for any root vegetable, not just radishes. While radish seed can be planted broadcast on well-worked, well-raked ground and patted smooth with a shovel, the plants themselves cannot be crowded. Seedlings must be thinned to at least 4 inches apart. The beautiful radishes depicted in the photographs were not accidents. They were carefully spaced so that they would develop good form and color. This is especially important for market radishes. However, radishes may be sewn broadcast among onion sets with several positive results. They will not compete with the onions, so two crops can be extracted from the same piece of ground, and because of their shape, radishes will loosen the soil. Since the radishes are pulled before the onions form bulbs, the loosened soil benefits the onions just at the time when the bulbs begin swelling. Best of all, the onions discourage many of the insects that would otherwise attack the radishes.

Radishes can be harvested at any time once the roots are well formed. Europeans prefer to pull them young; Americans often wait too long, and the radishes are either pithy in the center or cracked. Heavy rains will also cause radishes to crack, so it is better to pull them before a storm than to fret over the ensuing waste. Once radishes crack innumerable insects will find the openings, and the roots will become meals for the millions. For seed saving, select out the twelve most perfect radishes, dig them up, and plant them where they are to flower. Stake the flower stalks so that they do not fall over and touch the ground, for this will ruin the seed.

It will be obvious when the radishes are in bloom because their flowers are attractive to insects, and butterflies will be everywhere. At this point the roots are no longer palatable, but the seed pods are. They were used extensively in early American cookery both raw in salads and pickled. The pickled pods make delightful garnishes. The Madras Podding Radish was imported to this country specifically for this purpose.

While the radishes are in blossom, observe the flowers. Radish flowers produce many slight variations from one variety to the next, and these variations are important markers when looking for unwanted crosses. If one radish produces flowers with pink flecks while all the others of that variety produce white ones, there is reason to pull up the plant even if the root appears true to type. I make color transparencies of the flowers so that I remember the correct flower for each variety I grow. Do not rely on memory, since shifts can take place over the course of several years, and the results often show up when one least expects them. This precaution is especially appropriate where the purity of heirloom strains is an object. Furthermore, radishes cross readily. They are outcrossing, like all brassicas, so several plants are required for the transfer of pollen. If more than one variety is cultivated, bring them to flower at different times many weeks apart; otherwise, they must be isolated by a half mile. I have use of ground at Oaklands, an estate about a mile from me, where I grow out varieties I need to isolate from the ones at Roughwood. Similar arrangements are recommended for serious gardeners. Since radish seed remains viable for five years, it is possible to maintain as many as fifteen varieties, allowing three growouts per season.

Seed Saving

Radish seed is ready to harvest when the pods are dry. Snip off the pods into a brown paper bag, label and date the bag, and set it away in a dry room away from heat and sunlight. In about a month, the seeds will have matured enough to remove them from the pods, a job that is a lot easier when the pods are completely dry and brittle. In order to remove the seed, the pods must be split open and the seeds picked out — they do not fall out on their own. This work can be tedious, especially since the dry pods are pointed and sharp, but there is an easy way. Put the pods in a coarse sieve or strainer and gently crush the pods between the fingers, rolling them so that the seeds come loose. If this is done over a large work bowl, the seeds will drop through the sieve and thus become separated from the debris. Sift the seed from the chaff, and winnow outdoors. Since radish seeds are heavy (unlike lettuce seeds), winnowing is quickly accomplished. Always mix the seed from the various plants to maintain genetic diversity. While a dozen of the best will supply seed enough for one garden from season to season, twenty radishes will provide a better hedge against unforeseen seed damage and at the same time increase genetic diversity in the stock. All of the radishes listed are members of the same species regardless of root color, root shape, or intended use of pod. They will cross readily with one another.

'Black Spanish Winter' Radish
Raphanus sativus

The Shakers distributed seed for this radish through their vast seed network in the nineteenth century. This was one winter radish every American farmer could rely upon, and since it was well known since the seventeenth century, its merits needed no recommendation. What this radish lacked in physical beauty — it has the appearance of old rubbed tar — it far exceeded in practicality. It is so hardy that in Pennsylvania it is only necessary to throw some straw over it to protect it during the winter. Parsnips and Black Spanish radish were the first root vegetables of early spring among the eighteenth-century farmers in my part of the country.Black Spanish Radish

The root is indeed long, somewhat carrot shaped but thick, ranging from 7 to 12 inches in length and 2 to 3 inches in diameter, tapering to a point. This strain, with the pointed tip, is later and more pungent tasting than the variant form with a rounded or blunt end. The pointed sort is the older of the two and was the most commonly cultivated type in this country.

There is also a small, round form called Turnip-Rooted Black Spanish in old horticultural books. It is still available and was first mentioned in 1768 by English gardener Philip Miller. The skin of the radish is charcoal black and somewhat rough, due to tiny wrinkles; the flesh is clear, crisp white. I have an old round, black variety from Turkey that is indistinguishable from this one. It may point to an eastern Mediterranean origin for this type. In any case, its small size, about 3 inches in diameter, made it popular as an inexpensive grade of winter radish, reliable for its hardiness. Philadelphia seedsman Robert Buist (1847, 107) recommended sowing seed in August and lifting the radishes in October. They can be stored in sand for use over the winter.

Since the flavor of this radish is somewhat harsh, it was common practice to shred it and marinate it in salted water. After a few hours of marination, the radish was drained, pressed dry, and served as a salad with vinegar and oil. Minced fresh herbs were sprinkled over the top.

'China Rose' Radish
Raphanus sativus

China Rose is believed to have evolved directly out of the wild radish of Asia rather than out of a garden form under long cultivation. Its distinctive leaves and flowers point to its primitive origin. The radish was under cultivation in Europe many years before it was introduced into the United States.China Rose Radish It was grown in France in the late 1840s and soon thereafter depicted in the Album Vilmorin (1851, 2). It was known to Fearing Burr through the Vilmorin-Andrieux Description des plantes potagères (1856), and by 1864 seed was being offered on a regular basis by James J. H. Gregory of Marblehead, Massachusetts. Gregory claimed to have introduced the radish to American gardeners, but this has never been verified.

The radish is vivid rose pink, about 4 to 5 inches long, and shaped somewhat like a short, stumpy sausage. It is often more swollen on the root end than at the shoulders. Historically, this radish was raised as a fall or winter radish, for it is best in terms of sweet flavor and snappy texture during cool fall weather. It will withstand a hard frost without damage. There are also pure white and solid purple variants, known respectively by their French names radis blanc d’hiver de Chine and radis violet d’hiver de Chine. All three forms are ideal for raising in cold frames.

'Early Purple Turnip-Shaped' Radish
Raphanus sativus

This is the round or top-shaped violet version of the common red radish, and was mentioned as a good hardy sort by cookbook author Amelia Simmons (1796, 13). The advantage of the turnip-shaped varieties, as they were called, was that they overwintered well, especially when covered with straw or when raised in cold frames—a vital source of vitamin C not overlooked in colonial times. This radish was also popular due to its intense color, beautifully depicted in the Album Vilmorin (1863, 14). The handsomest form to my mind is the radis ronf violet à bout blanc, which is identical except that it is white on the root end. This color contrast seems to make the radish more visually appealing.Early Purple Radish

Due to its hardiness, the violet turnip-shaped radish was grown by market gardeners all year around and sold in radish “bouquets” of several colors, using whatever colors were then in season. The violet was always a good counterpoint to the red, white-tipped red, deep scarlet, solid white, and summer yellow variants. Such colorful radish mixtures are also quite striking when used at table.

The Purple Olive-Shaped Radish (SSE Radish 163) is the same color, but in spite of its name, it is shaped more like a small plum. I inherited this eighteenth-century variety in my grandfather’s seed collection and gave seed to Seed Savers Exchange. It is only available from me or from the members of Seed Savers Exchange who now grow it. Even though Thomas Mawe mentioned the radish in Every Man His Own Gardener (1779, 483), it seems to be a hardy variety that dates back to the seventeenth century. It is best planted as a late fall or early spring radish. If grown in warm weather, the radish acquires a hot, mustardy taste, almost like horseradish. Touched by light frost, the radish mellows in flavor and becomes sweet. A hard frost will destroy the plant; as a winter radish it must be grown in cold frames.

'Jaune hatif' or 'Early Yellow Turnip' Radish
Raphanus sativus

There are several heirloom yellow summer radishes, but the basic division falls into two categories: long or carrot-shaped and round. Alzbeta Kovacova-Pecarova (Betty to me), a seed saver in Kosice, Slovakia, has graciously shared with me some of the oldest yellow radish varieties presently in my vegetable collection, including jaune hatif, as it is known in France. The Abbé Rozier (1785, 534) noted that this round yellow radish was one of the most commonly raised varieties in Dauphin, Savoy, and in the vicinity of Lyon. Summer RadishHowever, documentation for yellow sorts prior to 1700 becomes murky. From a genetic standpoint, the yellows are the product of a pigment mutation in the red varieties, just as with tomatoes. Thus, the yellow radishes may be viewed as red radishes with missing genes. This natural deficiency is counterbalanced by a greater resistance to heat, allowing the yellow sorts to be planted late in the spring and enjoyed through the early summer — the reason for the hatif in the French name. In terms of flavor, this variety is not ranked as high as the white and red sorts.

On the other hand, climate often plays the high card, and where radishes are concerned, the very reason the yellow sort was popular in the hotter sections of France also made it popular in colonial America. The round yellow variety was well known in this country as early as 1800, and it seems to have been a consistently listed type throughout the nineteenth century, not just for its ability to withstand our sultry summers but also because its color was quite striking at table, especially when mixed with white, red, violet, and even black sorts. During the latter part of the nineteenth century, a golden yellow radish became popular due to its more delicate flavor and finer texture. It is still available, but should not be confused with the earlier sort, nor grown to seed at the same time, lest unforeseen crossing occurs.

'Madras Podding' Radish
Raphanus sativus

This radish variety originated in India, where it has been cultivated for centuries. It was introduced into the United States from England in 1859 by one Isaac Buchanan, Madras Podding Radishbut the circumstances surrounding its introduction have not yet come to light. This much is certain: the radish was cultivated exclusively for its pods, since the plant does not form an edible root. Through years of careful selection, the mild-flavored pods remain crisp and tender for a long time — as much as two weeks — rather than turning tough and woody within a few days as they do for most other radishes. Furthermore, the Madras radish thrives in hot weather and therefore can be grown during July and August when most other radishes are prone to bolt. Due to its long flowering season, which only stops with the frost, this radish should be pulled up before fall radishes are allowed to flower for seed-saving purposes. The flowers of the Madras radish are distinctive: pale pink with purple tips on the petals.

The following recipe for pickling radish pods is taken from Ella E. Myers’s Home Cook Book (1880, 71). Her expression “to turn on” means to pour over. Her suggestion to pickle the pods while still on the stems is a good one. They do look nice that way.

How to Pickle Radishes

Gather the pods while quite small and tender. Keep them in salt and water, till you get through collecting them — changing the water as often as once in four or five days. Then scald them with hot salt and water, let them lie in it till cool, then turn on hot vinegar spiced with peppercorns, mace and allspice. The radish tops, if pickled in small bunches, are a pretty garnish for other pickles.

'Philadelphia White Box' Radish
Raphanus sativus

Hovey’s Magazine of Horticulture (1843, 98) noted the introduction of a new radish called Long-Leaved White Turnip Radish, a top-shaped fall radish that had been introduced in France in 1841. Out of this French variety, David Landreth & Sons of Philadelphia created the Earliest White Forcing Radish, which the firm introduced in the early 1880s. This strain came to be known as the Philadelphia White Box Radish among market gardeners, and this name began appearing as such in the seed catalogs of William Henry Maule during the 1890s. The popularity of the radish was nationwide, for it was considered the most delicate and quick growing of all the white winter radishes. It was even cooked as a vegetable. Perhaps the ultimate compliment to this radish came in 1909, when it was featured in the frontispiece to volume 4 of L. H. Bailey’s Cyclopedia of American Horticulture, the book that eventually became Hortus Third.

The radish is small, round, and has very small leaves. The lack of large leaves makes it ideal as a forcing radish for cold frames. While it is best and most delicate when grown under glass, this radish can be raised in the open ground as a fall radish. I have found that it performs best in light, sandy soil. Radishes harvested late in the season can be stored in cool, damp sand and used over the winter. They will retain their crisp freshness until the following spring. Since they are extremely mild, the radishes can be used in cookery like baby turnips.

'Rat-Tailed' Radish, 'Purple-Podded' Radish, or 'Japan' Radish
Raphanus sativus var. caudatus

The opening of Japan by the American navy in the 1850s gave American seedsmen an advantage over Europeans in getting first dibs on many rare plants and seeds. Several of our seedsmen set up factors in Yokahama to deal exclusively in horticultural material. One of the curiosities to appear on our market as a result of this trade was the rat-tailed radish, or as it was referred to in the nineteenth century, the Japan radish.Rat Tailed Radish

This radish was introduced commercially in this country in 1866–67 primarily by James J. H. Gregory of Marblehead, Massachusetts, although there were several other American seedsmen who carried it. The American introduction was brought directly from Japan. However, the radish had been introduced somewhat earlier in England under the name Mougri radish, after its name in Java. In Germany, the radish was called Schlangenrettich, or “snake” radish, in reference to the long, sinuous shape of the pod.

In spite of the exotic appearance of the seed pods that give this variety its distinctive name, the Vick seed catalog of 1872 lamented that the rat-tailed radish “may never become popular,” a sentiment echoed earlier in the August 1868 issue of the American Agriculturist. One of the initial problems with the radish lay in its taxonomy. Botanists have consistently classified it as Raphanus caudatus, thus inferring that it is a species separate from the common table radish. I do not accept this, since it crosses with every known variety of radish that I have grown. It is the true Don Juan of radishes if there ever was one, and this ability to cross and degenerate not only itself but all the radishes near it did not earn it high marks with Victorian gardeners. The only difference between this variety and the others is that it does not develop a bulbous root. Like the Madras podding radish, it was developed with other culinary features in mind.

Unlike most radishes, this variety immediately sends up flower stalks rather than developing a thick root. The flower stems may grow as high as 3 or 4 feet, and they billow with masses of sweet-smelling blossoms. The Don Juan of radishes is also crack for butterflies, which flock around the plants in the heat of summer like bees on honey. I thoroughly enjoy growing this radish for the show alone, but since it is a great attractor of pollinators during the height of summer when many flowers go temporarily dormant, it is a very useful addition to the vegetable garden.

The curious feature of this radish is that the flowers quickly develop into long, twining purple seed pods that do indeed resemble rat tails. In their young stage, while crisp and tender, the pods are perfect for salads, chopped into stir-fries, or used in pickles. When exposed to vinegar, the purple pods turn a brilliant green that bleeds into the pickling brine. Pennsylvania Dutch housewives discovered that by using the pods in cucumber pickles and other similar green pickles, they could enhance the green color without resorting to artificial means. The pods also impart a mild horseradish flavor to pickles and therefore can be used as a substitute where horseradish is not available. Dried, the pods retain their purple hue and curious shape, and are useful in dried flower arrangements.

The seed pods tend to make the plants top-heavy, especially after a rain. It is wise to stake the plants securely so that they are not blown over in a thundergust. In temperate areas of the country, it is possible to grow three crops in one season, or even more if seed is planted in two-week intervals from early spring through September. The plant itself is not damaged by light frost, but the pods are tender and will be injured by freezing.

'White Icicle' Radish
Raphanus sativus

Radishes of this much-sought-after shape are difficult enough to grow in heavy soil, not to mention that most of them are no better tasting than the small, round sorts. White Icicle RadishWhy do we bother? Because there are consumers who do not know enough about food to detect the difference between quality and caprice. I resist growing these sorts of radishes, but in all fairness, if long they must be, then make them white. There is good reason for this. The long, narrow, white varieties seem to be less prone to difficulties and the most consistently sweet and mild, regardless of soil. This variety is about 6 inches in length and should be cultivated in sandy soil for best results.

Fearing Burr (1865, 72) referred to this radish as the White Naples, White Italian, and White Transparent. All are synonyms for the same thing, and unfortunately, much to the confusion of our gardeners, there are a great many more synonyms than this. In form the radish resembles Wood’s Frame, except that it is twice as long. Where the radish protrudes above the ground, the shoulders turn green. A variant form, which looks identical to this one, has shoulders that turn violet when exposed to extensive sunlight. There is no difference in taste or texture, yet the flowers are not quite identical. My opinion is that this purple intrusion is the result of an accidental cross, but seedsmen agitate against me because when they run out of seed for one, they substitute seed from the other, as though the two radishes are the same. Become a particular customer: only accept the green-shouldered ones as true to type.

'Wood’s Frame' Radish
Raphanus sativus

In many ways this is the nineteenth century’s answer to the bonsai vegetable. I happen to like the miniatures — the Tom Thumb lettuce, the gloire de Quimper pea, the Pink Pearl tomato — I guess because they are not threatening, or else because I am intrigued by their Lilliputian scale. For the diet-conscious, miniature food is not The Enemy. We eat it today because it is obviously “lite.” Victorians doted on miniature vegetables for entirely different reasons. To their way of thinking, “lite” meant sickly, so Wood’s Frame was seen only in the context of what it did for the food around it. In short, it was the ultimate garnish.Wood Frame Radish

This is a radish with pencil-thin roots 2 1/2 to 3 inches long and barely I inch in diameter at the shoulder. The skin is bright rose-red, which fades toward pink at the tip. The flesh is crisp and juicy, with a good deal of snap. Due to its small size, the radish makes an excellent addition to dainty sandwiches, one of the purposes of its development. In keeping with its small size, this radish also requires a small length of time to mature, something that takes many gardeners off guard. Twenty days, and do not forget it; 25 is too late. This is a radish that moves from perfection to flowers within a matter of days; it requires intense fussing and a commitment to cold frames. Otherwise, it is one of the easiest, one of the showiest, and one of the cheapest radishes to grow for profit. Imagine saving seeds every 40 days. The spring crop can pay for the fall mortgage. This is an heirloom that lays golden eggs.

Is it really an heirloom? Yes, it is a subvariety of Long Scarlet or Salmon Colored, one of the most popular red icicle-type radishes of the eighteenth century. Wood’s Frame, also called New London Particular, was introduced about 1845. It became popular in this country in the 1850s and was raised almost exclusively in cold frames. In order to achieve the perfect shape, the soil in which the radish is cultivated must be deeply dug and thoroughly sifted with coarse sand. Even a small pebble will cause this radish to bend or deform. But hundreds can be grown in a small amount of space, and with experience, this is a vegetable that will heed the command of the gardener and produce very respectable yields. For the home gardener who simply enjoys fresh produce, this radish will be a lesson in the value of heirlooms.

Find seeds for these heirlooms and more with our Custom Seed and Plant Finder.

Buy the brand new e-book of Weaver’s gardening classic in the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: Heirloom Vegetable Gardening.

Photos and Illustrations Courtesy William Woys Weaver.

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