In terms of glamour root crops seem to score pretty low. Very often seen as a bit boring and mundane, we recognize them as worthy yet hardly ‘interesting’ horticulturally. Yet as with any area of gardening there is always more to be found out and discovered than at first seems. The root crops are quite a varied bunch with a long history, and there are more than you may first suspect.
If you look at their wild ancestors these are spindly tough bitter specimens you would only eat if you were starving. Which presumably our ancestors were. And because toxins are often stronger in roots they had the problem of how to find out which roots were edible and which seriously poisonous. Strong tastes are not sufficient a sign- after all an eye watering fiercely burning raw onion would seem apparently inedible unless you knew it was safe. One suspects one way they may have found out for example that wild parsnip was edible but hemlock was not was with the unwilling assistance of criminals and prisoners of war.
Wild edible roots originally collected for the pot but discarded unused on the midden may have thrived and self seeded there producing better offspring. Eventually each type could then have become improved by deliberate cultivation and somewhat inadvertent seed selection.
The point though is that miserable tough little weeds slowly turned into a range of tasty healthy roots. With the majority this has taken millenia. But it might not need have done. Parsnips have been popular since Roman times and little changed though hugely superior to the wild native. In Victorian Cirencester at the Royal Agricultural Society a gardener sowed wild parsnip seed and selected the best specimens to set seed. Sowed these and again selected the best, and in the third selection produced sufficiently good parents that their seed was a new variety every bit as good if not better than others of the time. This variety, The Student is still with us. Now the point is this; it only took three generations of selection to produce a new desirable root from the wild form every bit as good if not better than the two thousand year old standards. There may be many other wild roots that could become as big and tasty with as little effort if we did but try.
Exactly the same was being tried out at about the same time by Vilmorin-Andrieux, the great French gardener, with carrots. He managed to get as good as the current varieties in even less time by selecting from very large numbers of wild seedlings. Carrots were known to the Romans but it is thought they were then not as improved as parsnips. Indeed for a long time after the Roman period carrots were purpley green and cooked to a dingy grey, hardly appetizing. The modern orange carrot was unknown, it did not exist till this variant appeared as a chance mutation and was fixed, probably by the Dutch in the seventeenth century. So much more visually appealing, especially once cooked, it soon replaced all others. Well not completely. In old references various colours are recorded from the sixteenth century on and we begin to find all those ‘modern’ ‘new’ and ‘exclusive’ red, yellow, white and purple forms that have suddenly become so popularly pushed.
Although orange carrots are very healthy eating the other colours have different benefits. The various anthocyanins and pigments are apparently very good for our immune systems. The variety of colour also gives the chef more possibilities. You can have more enjoyment from a meal with several different sorts rather than all of the same anyway. You can even make a rather macabre cole slaw with purple and red carrots, red onion, red cabbage, and a Sops-in-wine apple (an old variety equivalent with a blood orange).
Unfortunately I must say I find several of the unusually coloured carrots are relatively poor performers, the ‘white’ cooked greyish, and several sorts seemed more prone to root fly damage. That is most, but not all the yellow ones. In particular Yellowstone I find out performs even the traditional Autumn Giant types producing obscenely large yet not woody roots. Quite remarkable these have rivaled parsnips in size without noticeably losing quality.
What connects parsnips and carrots and most of our existing, and many potential, root crops is that they are often naturally biennials with swollen roots as storage organs. Other sometimes so called Root crops such as onions are bulbs, whilst horse radish, chicory, Jerusalem artichokes and potatoes are different again. Most of the real Roots are Umbelliferae, and so jointly suffer from carrot root fly. Fortunately the introduction of fine net and fleece covers has almost eliminated this as a problem.)Their habit as biennials is to germinate and grow one growing season storing up masses of materials so they can start earlier the next growing season. This gives them a start over surrounding plants and they produce tall stems topped with flower heads setting a large amount of seed early enough in the year to ripen well and self sow that autumn. This habit enables a much bigger better seed crop than rushing to do it all the first year. - However if they ‘feel’ they may not make it to the second year they bolt and set a small crop straight away. This is why it is so important to sow root crops thinly and not to let them suffer any check to their growth.
And it is this storing up of materials to make a seed crop that makes them so good for us. Not only are they stuffed with energy giving carbohydrates but they are packed full of minerals as well. They also come from several different families so giving an even greater spread of nutrients. Indeed we should all eat not only more roots but more variety. We have already domesticated a great many, but in fact there are a host of other possibilities awaiting us. There are countless dozens if not hundreds of wild plants whose roots are edible, if not palatable, but could be improved. Perhaps even more surprisingly is those we already have that we fail to fully utilise or even improve further.
Beetroot for example can be eaten raw, grated is best, yet we only usually have them boiled and dunked in vinegar, try them as chips! At least they have been well improved, once again the yellow forms are often worth having especially Burpees. There are also white, pink, ringed and many different shapes of red beet though few of these perform as well as the standard reds.
Turnips and Swedes now come in but few variations though in Roman times there were many more different sorts of turnip these have mostly disappeared. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries there were references to huge varieties of turnips weighing from fifty to a hundred pounds apiece- but this was the period when they were also becoming an economic fodder crop for animals. There are several varieties of turnips but not an awful lot of difference between them, Swedes even less so. However another closely related brassica the Kohl-rabi does have several. Considering how little grown, or even known this is it comes in both a red and a green form. But more amazing is the Dutch variety Superschmeltz. This seemed implausible when I read the catalogue but proved to be every bit as good as claimed. Not stopping at the tennis ball size when most kohl-rabis reach a tough radish like state these grow on, given space and water, to huge green footballs weighing a stone or more. What is more remarkable is that their texture remains crisp like an apple despite this size and they do not get hot and fiery. A remarkable root, even if technically it is a swollen stem base. It stores well and makes a good back up to winter cabbages. (and of course makes what I call a Kohl slaw!)
Celery was a medicinal herb known to the ancients but too bitter to eat. At first only the leaves of the wild form were used as a flavouring (smallage). Later in Renaissance Italy it was developed more like our modern crop and soon moved to every country. The swollen root form, celeriac, was developed at the same time but has remained less well known, yet is easier to cultivate and is also storable. Far less demanding of water than celery celeriac is a root that should be more widely grown as including some adds much to so many savoury dishes.
Hamburg Parsley is another root relative of a plant we also grow for the stems and leaves. The foliage is said to be usable as common parsley but it is coarse and strong so should be avoided. And the root is weird, it resembles a stumpy parsnip with a distinctly parsley flavour. Rather prone to carrot root fly problems this is an interesting addition to the pot.
Bulbous rooted Chervil is hard to find seed for and then harder to germinate. Then what you get resembles a smaller Hamburg Parsley, a squat swollen root with a chervil flavour. Which sadly I found difficult to grow well and poor eating. It is crying out for more improvement.
Evening Primrose, Oenothera biennis, is another desperate for improvement. Eaten by starving settlers in the first North American winters these have potential. They were grown in Victorian gardens as a crop but failed to become popular. Not always just one tap root these can produce a small bunch. However they are strongly flavoured and a tad bitter so as yet they are not worth considering except you are actually starving. But given a bit of selection they could prove really useful –especially as their oil is already considered virtuous.
Skirret, Sium sisarm, is an old odd perennial root. It is more a collection of roots like those of evening primrose, each with a tougher central core and a very sweet parsnip like flesh. Skirret is quite appealing but not very productive,I reckon this is a vegetable that should be much improved as the flavour is interesting already. (It’s annoyingly also very prone to root fly damage.) Selection from the best plants is easy from offsets.
And rather similar to Skirret in appearance above ground though much more like peanuts on the roots are our native Earth Chestnuts, Conopodium majus. These swollen nodules can be found on the roots of this semi-perennial which flowers with whitish umbels in early summer making it findable and identifiable when food is still scarce and so is possibly the origin of gathering nuts in May. These are small but very agreeable making this a plant well worth improving.
The roots of Eryngium maritimum, the Sea Holly, were a great favourite in Elizabethan times, preserved they were called eryngoes and had a reputation as an aphrodisiac. A plant with potential there then.
Two of the best contenders are Salsify and Scorzonera. These two similar but unrelated plants are not unknown but rarely widely grown. They both have most pleasing flavours, I prefer Scorzonera, but both have not been improved sufficiently to meet their potential. These are prone to producing long thin roots with many side roots, and they can only be eaten fresh as they deteriorate rapidly once dug. They can be left to become bigger but almost inedible in following years. But do try them, boiled in their skins, peeled then fried in butter. A gourmet treat most people will never experience.