Bartlett on Gardening: Brava Brassica!

I once worked with a woman who loved rutabagas. I know this because she frequently brought the leftovers to eat for lunch. It seemed an odd preference to me until I learned that rutabagas are called “yellow turnips” in Europe. Turnips are beloved by my daughter, husband and father-in-law.

Anyway, with fall just around the corner, this seems a good time to explore the possibilities of the root vegetables of the Brassica family.

Rutabaga, Brassica napus, is a relatively modern vegetable introduced to England from Sweden in 1755. (In England rutabagas are called “swedes.”) The rutabaga is believed to be a cross between turnips and Brassica oleracea, kohlrabi. An autumn crop, rutabagas taste best after frost. When you find them in the grocery store, they have been coated with wax to prolong their shelf life. After removing the coating, cook them as you would other yellow vegetables. They do have a distinctively “earthy” flavor.

Kohlrabi, or stem turnip, is a favorite vegetable in India and China. It is another modern vegetable first mentioned in the 1500s. A rapidly maturing crop, it is well suited to the spring garden, where it is planted every two weeks before warm weather arrives. It may be planted here by September 1 for an early fall harvest.

Kohlrabi prefers fertile, consistently moist soil. It may be eaten raw or cooked. The tops taste much like kale and may be similarly prepared.​

​Turnips, Brassica rapa, have been cultivated for millennia. Unfortunately, they have always been considered a food for the poor and were even used as winter forage for farm animals. They are a cool-season crop well suited to the fall garden where they are not fussy about soils. If you want to harvest the roots, plant them by September 15. If you are more interested in the greens, you have until the end of September to plant them. The tops are rich in vitamins A, B, and C. The roots are a low-calorie foil for fatty meats.

The love of turnips may run in families. I must agree that they do add something special when mashed with potatoes or yams. Try topping steamed rutabaga with caramelized onions for a welcome change in cool-season fare.

Master Gardener Ann Bartlett never lets lack of familiarity with a plant stop her from trying it in the ornamental beds around her home.

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