Heirloom Turnip Varieties
At one time, Americans were as enthusiastic about turnips as they now are about tomatoes. Get the gardening advice you need for growing the heirloom turnip varieties that once heavily populated American gardens and cuisine — and try our instructions for an old, glazed turnip recipe with gravy.
March 22, 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 turnip varieties was taken from chapter 36, “Turnips.”
Buy the brand new e-book of Weaver’s gardening classic in the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: Heirloom Vegetable Gardening.
To locate mail order companies that carry these heirloom turnip 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 Turnip Varieties
Above: Turnips, from left to right: Purple Top Milan, Orange Jelly, White Egg and Amber Globe.
The 1840 seed catalog of M. B. Bateham, proprietor of the Rochester Seed Store in Rochester, New York, listed several varieties of turnip popular at the time. These included Large White, Flat Norfolk, White Globe, Long Tankard, Red Top, Early White Flat Dutch, Early White Garden Stone, Rutabaga, Dale’s Yellow Hybrid (a cross between White Globe and a rutabaga), Large Yellow Scotch Aberdeen, Yellow Malta, Yellow Altringham, Yellow Stone, and Early Yellow Dutch. Seed for every one of these varieties came from England. This impressive list represents the tip, in a sense, of the huge business once done in turnips. At one time, Americans were as enthusiastic about turnips as they now are about tomatoes, and it is a fascinating study in our shifting foodways to piece together the reasons why turnip consumption has gone into such a drastic decline. The most obvious explanation is that we now have many other food choices during the winter; we are not at all dependent on root-cellar vegetables. Furthermore, turnips are one of the cornerstones of soup cookery, and soup cookery has also fallen out of fashion. Yet nutritionally, these shifts are unfortunate; turnips are extremely rich in vitamin C and other nutrients not easily replaced by winter tomatoes, Iceberg lettuce, and South American grapes. Turnips were well known historically for their health benefits, and works like John Tweed’s Popular Observations on Regimen and Diet (ca. 1815, 152) were quick to point this out.
The codex of Dioskorides (A.D. 500–511) discussed the turnip in terms of its medical properties and showed the oldest surviving botanical drawing of the plant. The turnip of the codex was round like the round varieties of today, but with very large leaves. The leaves were eaten as greens and therefore not considered a negative trait, as they are today. Since the Romans called turnips by three names, beta, napus, and rapum, there is always some confusion when consulting literary sources from that period, especially since beta could also refer to a beet. The rough rule was that rapum was used for round turnips, napus for long, carrot-rooted sorts, and beta for the varieties cultivated for their leaves. This is not a hard rule; sometimes only the context reveals what was meant.
Botanists have theorized that the round-rooted culinary turnip of the type for which I have provided sketches below evolved long before the Roman era and thus has played a major role in European agricultural history. It has been proven through genetic experiments in Japan (1935) and from later verifications that sometime during pre-Roman antiquity, turnips crossed with cabbage to yield the plant now known as rape, a major source of vegetable oil. Cabbage has 18 chromosomes; the culinary turnip contains 20. Rape is a combination of both, with 38 chromosomes. Furthermore, the round white turnip mentioned by Dioskorides is also the oldest type discussed in medieval literary sources, although by the 1500s a yellow-fleshed variety was known. It too is thought to be a transspecies cross, like all the subsequent yellow varieties, with the yellow-fleshed rutabaga (Brassica napus).
The turnip species, if we may call it that, is a large one, including such heirloom vegetables as broccoli rabe, Chinese cabbage, and Chinese mustard. The napus species includes rutabaga, Siberian kale, and rape. Rapeseed oil has been used in northern Europe since the Middle Ages as a substitute for olive oil, and a processed form of it is sold as canola oil in North America. The Pennsylvania Dutch cultivated rape in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries for oil purposes, but this declined rapidly in the 1840s in favor of other cooking oil sources. The most popular of all the napus species cultivated among the Pennsylvania Dutch was the Tetlow turnip, which originated in Prussia. It was raised almost exclusively by the German-speaking community in this country, and American recipes for it are mostly found in German-American cookbooks. The turnip was described in detail in the Transactions of the Royal Horticultural Society (1812, 26–29) as a vegetable consumed in England only by foreigners. Of the turnips, the most favored variety among the English was Chirk Castle Black Stone, a small black-skinned variety that was perfectly suited to cottage gardens. It is still available today but I find that it turns rather tough and woody in our climate.
Growing Turnips and Saving Seed
In The American Home Garden (1859, 185–87), Alexander Watson noted that it was common practice to sow turnips in March for a summer crop and in August for a fall and winter crop. Turnips need about eight weeks of cool, moist weather to attain their best shape and flavor. Seed is generally sown broadcast over well-prepared, well-raked ground. The best seedlings should be thinned to 4 inches apart. Turnips, more than many root vegetables, respond better to constant hoeing to keep the soil loose where they are growing. In areas of the country where spring is short and summer heat comes on quickly, grow turnips only as a fall crop. Liquid manure and frequent watering will ensure well-formed and well-textured turnips. Turnips are extremely sensitive to drought, and if they are stressed due to a lack of water, they will never fully recover and produce good roots.
For seed-saving purposes, it is important to know that turnips will cross with broccoli rabe, Chinese cabbage, and Chinese mustard, as well as with any wild turnips naturalized in the vicinity. Several forms of Brassica rapa have become common weeds in areas of the country settled in colonial times, so it is important to be watchful for these outside intrusions. Furthermore, rape has become naturalized in parts of the country where Pennsylvania Dutch have settled and should be destroyed if it is growing in the vicinity of the vegetable garden.
The species rapa is divided into two groups, even though both cross readily and should be isolated by at least 1 mile. The Rapifera group includes the root turnips discussed in the following pages. The Ruvo group includes the flowering sorts like true rape, Italian turnips, and broccoli rabe. All of these are grown as annuals, but in fact turnips are biennial and must be vernalized in order to produce flowers. In mild-winter areas turnips can be left in the open ground, but in most parts of the country, seed stock must be dug up before a hard frost and overwintered in cold storage. Damp sand or a moist environment with high humidity (90 to 95 percent) is necessary for good storage; otherwise the turnips will shrivel and eventually die. In the spring, the stored turnips are replanted and allowed to flower. Save at least twenty of the best turnips for seed. Turnips are out-pollinating, and therefore many individual plants are necessary for a good genetic balance. Pollen must be transferred from one plant to the next, not from flower to flower on the same plant.
Turnip seed is ready to harvest when the pods turn brown and brittle. The pods on the lower portions of the plants will ripen first and must be harvested first, otherwise they will burst and scatter the seed. The seed is also relished by certain birds, such as finches, so it may be necessary to cover the ripening pods with netting. Seed is harvested in succession until all the ripe pods are collected. The seed separates from the pods fairly easily once the pods are dry and brittle. As an alternative, seed pods can be stored in brown paper bags and sorted during the winter. Once it is separated, seed can be sieved of debris and stored in airtight containers. Seed viability is five years, although I have had good results with eight-year-old seed. It is better to renew seed every three years if several varieties are being maintained. I renew two varieties a year, taking advantage of isolation in a garden that is a mile from my main beds.
'Amber Globe' Turnip
This variety is also called Yellow Globe in old horticultural books and was depicted in the Album Vilmorin (1853, 3); thus color documentation is firm. It was “introduced” in England in 1840 as the Yellow Dutch turnip, but the Gardener’s Magazine (1840, 104) was not fooled. Loudon, the editor, noted that the turnip was “nothing more than the yellow turnip, the seed of which, having formerly been chiefly procured from Holland, thus obtained the name of Dutch. It is little grown in England in gardens, but much esteemed and generally cultivated in Scotland.” Americans shared the Scottish love for this yellow turnip because it was an old hardy sort dating at least from the eighteenth century that could be relied on well into the winter. In fact, this variety and a strain called Large Yellow Scotch Aberdeen could be stored through the following March and were greatly valued as a food source when other supplies were low. A fall turnip, it was generally planted about August 1.
The flesh of the turnip, is actually yellowish or cream colored. The shoulder of the turnip usually turns green where it is exposed to sunlight. The flavor is pungent, and of all the turnips I have grown, this one is most susceptible to worm damage. For best results grow this variety on ground previously cultivated with cowpeas. This will reduce the problem with nematodes and similar pests.
'Orange Jelly' Turnip or 'Golden Ball' Turnip
This handsome turnip was depicted in the Album Vilmorin (1870, 21), having appeared earlier in the Album Vilmorin (1854, 5) as Robertson’s Golden Ball. Charlwood & Cummins, London seedsmen, presented seed for twenty-six turnip varieties to the United States Patent Office in 1855, among them Robertson’s Golden Ball. This seed was distributed to American farmers for trial in different parts of the country. J. M. Thorburn & Company of New York continued to carry all twenty-six varieties for several years, but of these, only Robertson’s is still available.
The turnip is not truly orange, although the color will vary greatly due to soil. The flesh is yellow and the flavor unique. It has an unexpected and pleasant aftertaste of bitter almond, very sweet and mild. It is probably one of the finest of all the culinary turnips and is excellent when paired with carrots.
'Purple Top Milan' Turnip
The Gardener’s Magazine (1835, 40) reported that this turnip had just been introduced from France under the name navet rouge plat hatif. It appeared in the Album Vilmorin (1852, 3) as the Early Flat Red Top, and appeared again in the Album Vilmorin (1884, 35) under the name by which we now know it. For many years, while the name of this variety was not settled, it was often described as either red or purple. It is one of my favorite turnips because of its striking shape.
The turnip is extremely flat, smooth skinned, and well adapted to slicing. The turnip rests above the ground like a kohlrabi, the shaded part white, the part most exposed to the sun a rich violet. It is also one of the first turnips to come to harvest. If planted early in the spring, it is ready to pull by the end of June. If the climate is hot and dry, this turnip should be planted in late summer because it can develop a strong mustard flavor if the heat is excessive. In parts of the Northwest, where the climate is cool and rainy, this variety is ideal. When grown to perfection, it is a very fine culinary turnip.
The Table (1898, 213), a monthly magazine issued by Marshall’s School of Cookery in London, described the results of a cooking competition for turnips, with the winning recipes appended. One of the recipes, Turnips à la Mancelle, involved diced calf or sheep brains, velouté sauce, and an elaborate presentation en couronne. This approach was typical of the Victorian attempt to make over the turnip into something more in tune with elaborate silver and starched napkins. Turnips are rustic. A direct approach is always best. Mrs. Burkitt’s winning recipe below was accomplished with veal or chicken stock; beef bouillon will darken the vegetables but give a richer flavor. What is not mentioned is the sugar. Normally, a tablespoon or so of sugar was added to the butter, which heightened the flavor of the turnips as they were browned.
Pare four or five large turnips, wash and drain them and cut into slices of uniform size, or turn them into a ball or pear shape, dissolve in a deep saucepan as much fresh butter as will cover the bottom of the pan, throw in the turnips and fry until they are lightly browned, drain the butter from them and pour over as much good stock as will cover them, let them simmer gently until they are nearly tender, remove the lid, put the saucepan over a quick fire and let the sauce boil quickly until it begins to thicken, take up, but be careful not to break them, arrange neatly on a dish and pour the gravy over. The turnips will take about twenty minutes to simmer.
'Scarlet Ball' or 'Scarlet Kashmir' Turnip
Unlike the Milan turnip, this variety turns a true red or rose rather than violet. The roots are about 3 inches in diameter and somewhat flattened, not exactly ball shaped. William Henry Maule of Philadelphia carried this turnip in his catalogs in the 1890s. It was introduced from England as an improvement on a variety originating in India. The young plants make delicious greens but are subject to slug damage; I normally lose half my crop to slugs if I do not take precautions like scattering diatomaceous earth around them or setting out saucers of beer. Aside from the red color of the skin and its uniform size, this heirloom is not as flavorful as the others, but this could be the result of my soil type and not the variety. The skin of this variety may be dried and used like kohlrabi parings for making winter soups.
'White Egg' Turnip
Boston seedsman John B. Russell sold seed in 1828 for a turnip called Swan’s Egg, which appears to be the immediate predecessor of White Egg. In fact, based on old descriptions, the two are essentially the same. It is a fall variety that remained popular throughout the nineteenth century because of its keeping qualities. True to its name, the turnip is both egg shaped and white, generally about the size of a goose egg. The flesh is snowy white, tender, and very juicy, since there seems to be a higher water content in this turnip than in many other varieties. The flavor is somewhat sweet, and so mild that the turnip can be eaten raw, at least when fresh from the garden. In storage, the flavor intensifies. It has been said that voles destroy the best things first, and something about this turnip makes it extremely attractive to them. Voles will seek it out even when other turnip varieties are nearby. Their fondness for this one may be turned to the gardener’s advantage, since the culls make excellent bait for vole traps.
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.