Turnip and Its Hybrid Offspring

Much confusion surrounded the origins, even the identity, of turnips and rutabagas, or "Swedes," for a long time. They are distinctly different species.

Most varieties of turnip are white-fleshed and most varieties of rutabaga are yellow-fleshed, but there are also white-fleshed rutabagas and yellow-fleshed turnips. Rutabaga leaves are smooth like cabbage leaves, while those of the turnip are somewhat rough, with sparse, stiff "hairs" over them.

The most significant difference between them, however, is in the make-up of their mechanisms of heredity, the structures of their individual cells. The turnip has 20 chromosomes, while the rutabaga has 38. And thereby hangs a tale-the tale of the origin of the rutabaga.

Study Indicates a Turnip-Cabbage Cross

Recent botanical detective work indicates that a rather rare kind of hybridization between some form of cabbage (18 chromosomes) and turnip (20 chromosomes) resulted in the new species, rutabaga (20 + 18 = 38 chromosomes).

No one knows when or where this occurred, but the new species was probably first found in Europe some time in the late Middle Ages. There was no record of it until 1620 when the Swiss botanist Caspar Bauhin described it.

Turnip (Brassica rapa) is of ancient culture, many distinct kinds having been known to the Romans at the beginning of the Christian Era. Some of those varieties bore Greek place names, indicating earlier culture and development by the ancient Greeks.

In the first century Pliny described long turnips, flat turnips, round turnips. He wrote of turnips under the names rapa and napus. In Middle English this latter term became nepe, naep in Anglo-Saxon. One of these words, together with turn ("made round"), became our common word "turnip."

Man appreciated the usefulness of the turnip during the prehistoric development of agriculture, and the plant was so easy to grow in so many places that it became widely distributed all the way from the Mediterranean across Asia to the Pacific.

The European types of turnip, our commonest kinds, developed in the Mediterranean area. The basic center of the Asiatic kinds is in middle Asia, west of the Himalayas. There are also two secondary centers-eastern Asia and Asia Minor.

The European type of turnip was grown in France for both food and stock feed at least as early as the first century after Christ.

In the England of Henry VIII, turnip roots were boiled or baked, the tops were cooked as "greens," and the young shoots were used as a salad. (In parts of our South today turnip leaves for greens are called "turnip salad.")

The turnip was brought to America by Jacques Cartier, who planted it in Canada in 1541. It was also planted in Virginia by the colonists in 1609 and in Massachusetts in the 1620's. The Indians adopted its culture from the colonists and soon grew it generally.

Since colonial times the turnip has been one of the commonest garden vegetables in America. It is primarily a cool-weather crop, suitable for summer culture only in the northernmost States or at high altitudes.

European varieties of turnips are biennial. One Oriental variety commonly grown here, however, called Shogoin, will go to seed in its first season if planted in the spring.

A few varieties of leaf turnips (no enlarged root) such as Seven Top are grown only for greens. The leaves of the turnip are usually rich in the minerals and vitamins that are essential to health, but the roots have a relatively low food value. In this country the roots are usually eaten boiled, either fresh or from pit or cellar storage. In Europe kraut is commonly made from the sliced roots.

Rutabaga Also Called "Swede"

Rutabaga (Brassica napobrassica) gets its name from Swedish rotabagge. In England and Canada it is commonly called "Swede," or "Swede turnip." The French called it navet de Suede (Swede turnip), chou de Suede (Swede cabbage), and chou navet jaune (yellow cabbage turnip). It was known in the United States about 1800 as "turnip-rooted cabbage." Although common names suggest a Scandinavian origin, this is not certain.

Rutabaga was apparently known on the Continent many years before it was grown in England. It was little known in England in 1664 when it was grown in the royal gardens. It was used for food in France and southern Europe in the 17th century. Both white and yellow-fleshed varieties have been known in Europe for more than 300 years.

The rutabaga requires a longer growing season than our turnips, but, like the turnip, it is sensitive to hot weather. Its culture is therefore confined largely to the northernmost States and Canada and to northern Europe and Asia. It is a staple crop in northern Europe, but a minor crop in America and in the Orient. It is more nutritious than the turnip, chiefly because it contains more solid matter.