Wednesday 2 May 2018

Community Garden in National Garden Scheme 2018

Nightingale Community Garden in Dinas Powys is opening as part of the National Gardens Scheme (NGS) for the third year in a row, over the weekend of Saturday 14 and Sunday 15 July 2018. It will join four other Dinas Powys gardens this year, all accessible on a walking tour of the village.

For further details of gardens open in Dinas Powys visit the NGS website:
Nightingale Community Garden will be open from 11am to 5pm on the two days. There is a combined admission price for the six gardens of £5.00, with children free. The Community Garden will have volunteers and plot-holders around all weekend to answer questions. The garden openings raise money for the local charity, Dinas Powys Voluntary Concern.

From the 2018 NGS guide:
"6 years ago the gardens were created on an old derelict playground with funding from Tidy Town Wales. 27 Gardens were created including 2 raised beds for the physically handicapped. Many local residents, young and old, grow a variety of vegetables, fruit and flowers. In season excess is donated weekly to the local Food Bank. We share 3 Greenhouses, 2 sheds and a communal area for activities. "

 “Nightingale Community Garden, Sir Ivor Place, Dinas Powys, CF64 4QZ
How to find us: Along pathway between Sir Ivor Place & Nightingale Place. At T-lights on Cardiff Rd, turn R by school if driving from Barry, or L if driving from Cardiff/Penarth. Continue, then take 2nd R at Camm's Corner. You may park here.”

Timeline for Nightingale Community Garden, Dinas Powys, on this blog:

Jan 2012
The initial idea and looking for funding

Feb 2012
The involvement of Creative Rural Communities and the first plan for the site

Aug 2012

Oct 2012
Funding in place and residents are briefed on progress

Jan 2013
Work starts clearing the ground

Feb 2013
Building contractors on site.

March 2013
Topsoil is spread and the first garden visit occurs

April 2013
The plots are marked out and allocated, the first plants go in

June 2013
Photos of the garden flourishing in its first year

Sept 2013
The official opening of the community garden, with guests including Jane Hutt AM and Derek Brockway

May 2014
Progress report a year after opening – a highly productive local food growing area

July 2014
The Community Garden links up with the local food bank 

July 2015
One of the Community Garden’s youngest gardeners, Dan Tailby (age 6) who grew his first plants in the communal family plot in the garden, is a finalist in the 2015 Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) Young Gardener of the Year Awards

Feb 2016
Nightingale Community Garden joins the National Gardens Scheme for first time

Photo from NGS open day in Nightingale Community Garden in 2016

Wednesday 21 February 2018

Beetroot: Contents

Beetroot (2004)

Stephen Nottingham

1. Introduction
2. History
3. Classification and Botany
4. Cultivation
5. Colour
6. Health and Nutrition
7. Cuisine
8. A Dictionary of Cultivated Varieties

© Copyright Stephen Nottingham, 2004

"Stephen Nottingham's meticulously researched online book, Beetroot"
The Times (London), 15th August 2005

Please note: The information contained in this book is not intended to be used as a basis for self-diagnosis or treatment. It is recommended that a doctor is consulted if in doubt about treatment for medical conditions.

August 2004 SFN. 1

Beetroot: 1. Introduction

Beetroot (2004)

Stephen Nottingham

© Copyright: Stephen Nottingham 2004

1. Introduction

This book is about an extraordinarily useful plant called Beta vulgaris. In particular, it concerns one of this plant's cultivated forms: beetroot (beet, table or garden beet). The other cultivated forms of Beta vulgaris are leaf beets (spinach beet and Swiss chard), fodder beet, and sugar beet.
Wild sea beet is the ancestor of all cultivated beets. It grows in coastal areas in Europe, North Africa and Asia. The leaves of sea beet have probably been consumed since prehistoric times in Europe. Beta vulgaris was first domesticated for its leaves and leaf stems (petioles). Cultivated leaf beets were eaten throughout ancient times. The Greeks described colourful chards, a special type of leaf beet with elongated, broad and fleshy leaf midribs and petioles. In Roman times, chard was called beta.
The Romans were the first to take an interest in the root of Beta vulgaris, which they utilized for their medicinal properties. It was not until the sixteenth century that beetroot became known as a root vegetable. A wide range of beetroot cultivars were bred from that time onwards. The cultivation of beet for sugar production started at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Today, around half the world’s sugar is obtained from sugar beet. Chapter Two is about beets in time, tracing the history of cultivated Beta vulgaris from ancient times to the present day.
The classification of Beta vulgaris is the subject of Chapter Three. Within the taxonomic system of binomial nomenclature, established by Linnaeus, cultivated beets are currently considered to be within the subspecies Beta vulgaris subsp. vulgaris, while ancestral sea beet is considered as Beta vulgaris subsp. maritima. The different cultivated forms of beet are considered as distinct varieties. A complementary horticultural scheme, however, is usually applied for within-species (infraspecific) classification of beets. This scheme uses the concepts of cultivar and cultivar group.
The botany of Beta vulgaris is also considered in Chapter Three. Beetroot is a biennial plant grown as an annual for its storage root. Disparities between commonly used and botanical terms are clarified. Beetroot seed, for instance, is technically a fruit containing several true seeds.
The cultivation of Beta vulgaris is described in Chapter Four, with an emphasis on beetroot in gardens and allotments. From sowing seed to harvest and storage, each stage of cultivation is considered. Problems due to bolting (going to seed) and from pests and diseases are described, while ideal growing conditions are discussed. The chapter concludes with a look at biotechnology, considering genetically-modified sugar beet and how beet cultivation may be further modified in the future.
The characteristic colour of beetroot is investigated in Chapter Five. The pigments in beetroot, the betalains, are restricted in distribution. Therefore, beetroot has a distinct value as a dye source and for the health benefits arising from compounds related to these pigments. Beetroot red or betanin is extracted from beet roots on an industrial scale for use in food products (E162 in Europe), while beetroot colouring has been used as a dye since the sixteenth century. Betalains are usually taken up efficiently and processed in the human body. However, some people excrete red-coloured urine after eating beetroot, due to an inability to breakdown betanin - a condition called beeturia.
The composition of Beta vulgaris, with respect to its health and nutritional value, forms the basis of Chapter Six. Beta vulgaris has been considered a medicinal plant since ancient times, while the seventeenth-century herbalists ascribed many beneficial effects to its leaves and roots. Scientific research is confirming some of the benefits derived from beetroot, although other claims for it have to be regarded as 'old wives tales'. Beetroot juice has been advocated as a stimulant for the immune system and as a cancer preventative.
Chapter Six concludes on a lighter note with a section on beetroot and sex. Although long associated with rude good health, from its depiction in Pompeii’s brothels to Montgomery exhorting his troops to “find favours in the beetroot fields", do beetroot’s aphrodisiac properties really stand up?
The myriad uses of Beta vulgaris in the kitchen are related in Chapter Seven. Descriptions of dishes are given in an historical and cultural context. The first section looks at cooking with beet leaves and chard. Spinach beet (perpetual spinach) can be cooked like spinach, for instance, while Swiss chard is good steamed and covered in sauce.
Beetroot has been a staple winter root vegetable in Central and Eastern Europe for centuries. Many of the classic beetroot dishes originated in this region, including the most famous beetroot soup called borsch. Ukrainian borsch is described in this chapter, along with the side dishes that traditionally accompany it. The production of smaller globe-shaped beetroot varieties in North America and Western Europe led to beetroot’s increasing importance as a summer salad crop.
The different ways that beetroot are used in salads, as a hot vegetable to accompany meat and fish, and in pies, risottos and gratins are described here, in addition to methods for their preservation such as pickling. Beetroot juice is common in health drinks and it makes a good wine. Beetroot has enjoyed a revival in recent years in Europe and items on fashionable restaurant menus are noted throughout this chapter. A new generation of chefs has revived and updated traditional recipes, and in the process found new ways of using beetroot.
Beetroot is one of the most commonly grown crops in gardens and allotments, and there are numerous cultivars to choose from. Chapter Eight takes the form of a dictionary of cultivated varieties. It lists all the cultivars encountered in popular seed catalogues, and a range of heritage varieties obtainable from specialist suppliers. For each cultivar, information on history, size and shape, colour, resistance to bolting and disease, eating properties, and other characteristics are given. Additional information will continually be added, including photos and tasting notes based on my experience of growing and cooking a wide range of beetroot cultivars from my allotment in Stevenage, England.

© Copyright Stephen Nottingham, 2004

August 2004 SFN.

Beetroot: 2. History

Beetroot (2004)

Stephen Nottingham

© Copyright: Stephen Nottingham 2004

2. History 
Wild sea beet (Beta vulgaris subspecies maritima) has thrived around the coastlines of Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, and parts of Asia, since prehistoric times. The leaves of sea beet have probably been collected and used as a potherb since humans first started experimenting with edible green plants. Sea beet was first domesticated in the eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East. It is the ancestor of all the cultivated forms of beet (Beta vulgaris subspecies vulgaris). This chapter traces the history of beets from ancient times to the present day.
Beta vulgaris was initially valued for its leaves and for the fleshy elongated leaf midribs that characterize chard. Leaf beets, including chard, have been popular food plants in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East since the start of recorded history. Beet (silga) was mentioned in an Assyrian text as growing in the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the wonders of the ancient world, in around 800 BC. It was also referred to variously as selg, silq, silig, seig or salk in Middle Eastern areas from ancient times. The ancient Greeks and the Romans cultivated leaf beets for use as a potherb.
The Greeks presented beet as one of their offerings to the sun god Apollo in the temple at Delphi. The earliest Greek name for beet was teutlon or teutlion, probably because its foliage was thought to resemble squid tentacles. The plant is mentioned in two comedies (The Acharneans and Peace) by Aristophanes (around 444-385 BC), which were performed in Athens in about 420 BC. Aristotle (384-322 BC), the first philosopher to attempt to classify the natural world, described a red-coloured beet. His pupils Theophrastus (370-288 BC) and Eudemus (350-290 BC) also left accounts of beet. Theophrastus described a white or light-green kind called Sicula (after Sicily where it was first grown) and a black or dark-green kind. Sicula or cicla has been used as a taxonomic term for leaf beets (as opposed to beet roots) up to the present day. Theophrastus described beet as being a garden plant with many uses. The Greek physician Dioscorides also records two types of beet in the first century AD. Eudemus was not so farsighted in identifying future leaf and root beets, however, and he distinguishes four kinds: white, sessile, common, and dark or swarthy. Roman and Arab writers noted a variety of different colours in leaf beets, including pink and yellow coloured forms. The old varieties of chard available today are identifiable in the descriptions of colourful leaves and stems handed down in ancient texts. The Greeks ate the leaves of Beta vulgaris and utilized them, and occasionally the roots, medicinally.
The Romans consumed leaf beets in the same way as the Greeks, but they called the plant beta. Many Roman writers mention betas, including Apicius, Cato, Cicero, Columella, Dioscorides, Galen, Palladius and Pliny the Elder. The two main types of Beta vulgaris known to the Romans were white and black, which correspond with the two types described by Theophrastus. However, Roman descriptions of beet put more emphasis on the roots than did Greek texts. The Romans were the first people to become interested in the root of Beta vulgaris both as a medicine and as a food. Roman black beet represents beetroot in an early stage of development. Different types of Beta vulgaris would have hybridized freely in Roman gardens, with the seed from plants producing swollen roots being preferentially selected for future planting. The Romans were therefore the first people to cultivate beetroot.
The Romans were primarily interested in the roots of Beta vulgaris as a medicine. By the third century AD, the first recipes for preparing the roots of Beta vulgaris appear. The roots of both white beet and black beet were used medicinally. Roman recipes for beetroot were mainly for curative broth, to treat fevers and other ailments, but some were aimed at the epicureans of the day.
Recipes for both medicinal broth and adventurous culinary dishes have been handed down in Apicius' The Art of Cooking. The Roman gourmet Marcus Gavius Apicius lived in Tiberius in the first century AD. However, the book that bears his name dates from the late forth or early fifth centuries AD, because it was compiled by another author, who confusingly also wrote under the name Apicius. He combined two original texts by Apicius, on general recipes and on sauces, with a book on agriculture and domestic science by Apuleius (second century AD) and material from other sources. Apicius’s cookbook was edited and translated in 1958 by Flowers and Rosenbaum, under the title The Roman Cookery Book.
In the third part of The Art of Cooking, which is thought to have derived from Apuleius, there are five different recipes for broth to be used as a laxative. Three of these include beetroot. In one of these broth recipes, cleaned black beet roots (negro betacios) are either cooked in mulsum (a honey and wine mixture) with a little salt and oil, or boiled in water and oil with salt. The broth is drunk, presumably warm. It is noted that the broth is even better if a chicken has been cooked in the water first (i.e. chicken stock). Marcus Terentius Varro (116-27 BC) is acknowledged as the source for this description of beetroot broth, which occurs in later Roman versions of Apicius. Varro was a noted scholar, the first librarian of the public library in Rome, and was said to have written more than six hundred books on a wide range of subjects, including an important work on agriculture. The laxative recipes in Apicius are discussed further in Chapter Six. Varro's broth made with stock is a precursor of beetroot soups such as borsch.
The first boiled beetroots were probably the leftovers from the making of broth, but were then regarded as food in their own right. In a recipe for boiled beets (Betas elixans), they are said to be good to eat served with a dressing of mustard, a little oil, and vinegar. This appears to be an early beetroot salad, comparable to the modern beetroot salads described in Chapter Seven. While Flowers and Rosenbaum, Giacosa, and other writers translate Betas in this recipe as beetroot, however, others suggest that Apicius meant only beet leaves. Unfortunately, the text is unclear in this regard, although I favour the beetroot interpretation. Pliny the Elder (AD 23-79), in his Natural History, also suggested mustard dressing on beet, although again it may be to beet leaves rather than beetroot that he is referring. The oil/vinegar/mustard dressing, already used on beet leaves, may have been the first dressing used on beetroot.
Apicius included beets in recipes for soup, stew and stuffed sucking pig. In his barley soup, the leaves of beets (betae) and other finely chopped greens are added to a soup pot with legumes. Barley is used to thicken this soup, which is a forerunner of minestrone. In turnover stew, small white beets (albas betas) are boiled with leeks and various meats. Sucking pig stuffed with herbs is a recipe that derives from Apicius the gourmet. The stuffing includes meat from chickens and thrushes, snails, various sausages, stoned dates, flower bulbs, a wide range of herbs including beets (betae), peppers, pine kernels, fifteen eggs and liquamen sauce. The pig is sown up and smeared with wine, honey, oil, herbs and spices, before being roasted in a large oven. In this recipe, both the leaves and roots of beta may have been used.
It should be emphasised that the roots of Beta vulgaris were not commonly eaten as food in Roman times, while leaf beets were frequently part of a meal. However, the leaves of Beta vulgaris had a reputation for being somewhat insipid. Martial (Marcus Valerius Martialis, approximately AD 40-104), the writer of short poems, reflected this in a description of the crops growing on an estate outside Rome in one of his epigrams:
You could have seen there cabbages with noble heads
And leeks of either kind and lettuces like stools
And Beets that have some uses for a slow stomach.
Martial recommended a dressing of pepper and wine for beets.
Although Beta vulgaris appears to have been widely prescribed for its medicinal value, not everyone in the Roman world was convinced of its benefits. Pliny the Elder noted that although beets were easily digested, there were doctors who claimed them more harmful than cabbage. The influential physician Claudius Galen (AD 131-201) and Oribasius, the court physician to Julian the Apostate (Flavius Claudius Julianus, AD 332-363) were notable sceptics. Their view was that beetroot needed boiling twice, unless you wished to suffer from flatulence and stomach aches, that it was no more nutritious than any other plant of its kind, and that it was ineffective as a laxative. However, beetroot is still valued for some of the benefits extolled by the ancients, as we shall see in a later chapter.
Anthenaeus, writing in the third century AD, quotes Diphilus of Siphnos to the effect that the beet root was good in taste and a better food than the cabbage. Anthimus writing in the sixth century, within the same culinary tradition as Apicius, describes beetroot as being suitable for both summer and winter use. This presumably refers to both the leaves and roots in the summer, with the roots providing winter sustenance. The Romans probably took white and black beets to various parts of their empire, starting the spread of cultivated Beta vulgaris into northern Europe and beyond.
Beet appears in the gardens of Charlemagne (724-814), the ruler of an empire that included Gaul, Italy and large parts of Spain and Germany. In a 'Regulation concerning landed property' (Capitulare de villis), issued by Charlemagne around 812, Beta is registered as a plant to be specifically cultivated in the grounds of the Imperial estates. Beta vulgaris is well adapted to the cooler climate of Northern Europe; cultivated forms generally grow best under cooler conditions.
From Eastern Europe and the Middle East, cultivated Beta vulgaris was carried on trade routes to East Asia. Beets were consumed in Asia Minor in ancient times and in India by classical times, and were known in China by AD 850. Sturtevant notes that leaf beet (chard) is recorded in Chinese writing from the seventh, eighth, fourteenth and seventeenth centuries. In Asia, as in Europe, Beta vulgaris was originally cultivated for its leaves.
Leaf beet was a popular potherb from Roman times to the sixteenth century, although beetroot was much less frequently consumed as a foodstuff during this time. Beta vulgaris was grown for its roots throughout the Middle Ages, when it was usually referred to as Roman beet, particularly in monastery gardens in France, Spain and Italy. Medieval herbalists and gastronomes consumed beetroot and advocated its benefits.
Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179) wrote down details for preparing beetroot. Hildegard is nowadays mainly revered for her sublime sacred music, but she was also an abbess, a healer with a good understanding of herbs, a writer, and something of a visionary. In her book Naturkunde, translated into modern German by Peter Riethe, she describes a white beet that needs to be peeled (therefore, a root). This is said to be more beneficial cooked than raw. Many of Hildegard's ideas were radical in her time, so her descriptions of beet root do not imply that it was widely consumed in the twelfth century. She also specified the roots of white beet, which has often been used medicinally but has rarely been eaten as food. Another key herbalist of the period, Albertus Magnus (c. 1200-1280) mentions a chard-like leaf beet, but not the roots of Beta vulgaris, in his observations on plants in the thirteenth century.
In contrast to beetroot, leaf beets gained in popularity during the Middle Ages. From the old Roman Empire, they flourished in cultivation throughout the Arab world. The Portuguese adopted the Arabic for beet (selg) as acelga or selga. Leaf beet was known as acelga by the thirteenth century throughout the Iberian Peninsula. Leaf beet, especially chard, is known today as acelga in Portuguese and Spanish.
Beet roots were long, thin and roughly turnip-shaped in the Middle Ages, rather than the swollen and succulent roots we know today. There is little written proof for the existence of fleshy roots in Beta vulgaris before the sixteenth century. After the Roman era, in fact, there is little mention of beetroot in manuscripts until the fourteenth century. Then the word Bete occurs in an English recipe of 1390. Barbarus (d. 1493) mentions a single, long, straight, fleshy, sweet root of beet that was good to eat. This description was reiterated by Ruellius writing in France in 1536 and Fuchsius in 1542. In his plant guide of 1919, Sturtevant notes how Fuchsius amends the description of Barbarus to include several branches and small fibres on the roots.
The fifteenth century Italian physician and gourmand Platina (Bartolomeo Sacchi), who has been described as the Dr. Atkins of his day, wrote his influential volume De Honesta Voluptate et Valitudine Vulgare (On Right Pleasure and Good Health) in 1460. This has been credited as the first modern cookbook, which sets out the basis for modern Italian cuisine and the ‘Mediterranean diet’. Platina included recipes for white chard, and a recipe for green sauce that includes leaf beet, parsley and wheat to thicken. He describes how beetroot, roasted in a coal fire, helps to sweeten the breath when it is eaten with garlic.
By the end of the fifteenth century, different cultivated forms of Beta vulgaris would have been found throughout Europe. In contrast to the Romans, who primarily took the root medicinally, from the sixteenth century onwards people consumed beetroot mainly as a vegetable. New beetroot varieties were developed that were suited to the table. From the 1530s onwards, detailed descriptions of beet roots start to appear. Caesalpinus distinguishes four types of beet in his book De Plantis of 1538, one of which had red roots. Matthiolus describes a new beet (Beta rubra) in Germany in 1558, which had red turnip-like roots that were good to eat. This beet was said to be quite distinct from the white and black beets commonly grown in Italian gardens of the time. These were among the first descriptions that specifically commented on the redness of the root. Pena and Lobel in 1570 also describe the new red beet, as related by Sturtevant, but they also note its rarity. Lobel illustrated the new beet in 1576 and emphasized its improved form, with the root being swollen at the shoulder.
The Italians developed different types of beetroot during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. A number of these early beetroot types were introduced into northern Europe from Italy by the sixteenth century. Camerarius describes a shorter and thicker form from Italy in 1586, for example, which might represent a prototype for cylindrical or half-long shaped roots. Daleschamp also records this type in 1587, in his Historia Generalis Plantarum. In addition, Daleschamp describes an important new improved long-rooted type known as Roman Beet (Beta romana). It is generally recognized as the prototype of modern beetroot, giving rise to both long turnip-rooted and stout globular-rooted varieties. Roman Beet was the first improved beetroot variety with a distinctly swollen root, for which there is good documentation. The name Roman Beet suggests that it originated in Italy. Its first recorded appearance, however, was in Germany in about 1558, followed by a description in England in 1576.
New beetroot types were enthusiastically cultivated in Germany, where gardeners played a key role in developing it from the late Middle Ages onwards and promoting it as a food. From Germany, beetroot's popularity as a root vegetable spread eastwards to Poland, Lithuania, Russia and the Ukraine, and northwards to Scandinavia. Beetroot started to become an important vegetable in Central and Eastern Europe by the end of the Middle Ages. It continues to be a staple today in this region, especially in rural areas. Its first use in Ukrainian and Slavic cookery is noted in cookery books dating from between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries. Borscht, the classic beetroot soup from Poland, Russia and the Ukraine, originates from this time, as do other beetroot dishes such as Scandinavian herring and beetroot salad. Large long-rooted beetroots would have been harvested in the autumn for consumption during the winter.
In France, Ruellius described a new type of beetroot or betterave in 1536. This may be Roman Beet, which was known in French gardens by 1631, according to Sturtevant, growing under the name Beta rubra pastinaca. The French agronomist Olivier de Serres describes a type of beetroot in his Théâtre d'Agriculture of 1629 as, 'a kind of parsnip which has arrived recently from Italy'. He records that it has a very red and rather fat root, with thick leaves, and all of it is good to eat. He especially recommends the root as a choice food and notes that the juice it yields is like a sugar syrup, which is very beautiful on account of its vermilion colour. The cultivation of beetroot was described in the popular gardening book Le Jardinier Solitaire in 1612. Beet roots have been fed to cattle in France from the early 1600s onwards. Rouge Crapaudine or Crapaudine, one of the oldest known table beet varieties, was first cultivated in France. Its long roots have a distinctive black or dark purple, pock-marked and rough skin. La Varenne, who is credited with inventing the system used in modern French cookery, described the preparation of beetroot in his book La Cuisine Français in 1651. In his recipe, pre-cooked beets are peeled, cut into rounds, and fried in butter with a chopped onion and a dash of vinegar.
Roman Beet reached England in the late sixteenth century. John Gerard in his Herball or The Historie of Plants, first published in England in 1597, notes the distinction between white beet (Beta alba) and red beet (Beta rubra) and provides an early description of Roman Beet. All cultivated forms of Beta vulgaris were called beet in Gerard's day. Up until the Elizabethan era in England, white beet was the only type of cultivated Beta vulgaris commonly grown.
John Gerard (1545-1612) was the superintendent of Lord Burleigh's garden in central London, amongst other things. His views on plants were highly respected and Queen Elizabeth I was said to have had a high opinion of him. It was also said that Shakespeare, who lived around the corner from Lord Burleigh’s garden for a number of years, might have been inspired by the plants in it when writing his early plays. Gerard’s Herball was updated in 1633 by Thomas Johnson.
In the Herball, Gerard describes the common white beet as having great broad leaves and large, thick and hard roots. It is clear from his description that the white roots of this plant were not consumed as food. Gerard described the cooking of leaves of white beet, 'a cold and moist pot-herbe', which 'quickly descendeth' or wilts when boiled. He concludes that it 'nouristheth little or nothing'.
Gerard explains how a merchant, Nicholas Lete of London, gave him a novel type of red beet from a place beyond the seas, although that place is not named. He grew it in his garden in 1596. Gerard describes this red beet, 'which hath leaves very great, and red of colour, as is all the rest of the plant, as well as root, as stalke, and floures full of a perfect purple juyce tending to redness: the middle rib of which leaves are for the most part very broad and thicke, like the middle part of the cabbage leafe, which is equall in goodness with the leaves of the cabbage being boyled'. He suggests that the greens of this red beet 'may be used in winter for a sallad herbe, with vinegre, oyle and salt, and is not only pleasant to the taste, but also delightful to the eye'. Gerard then refers to the greater red Beet or Roman Beet, which he regards as distinct from the novel red beet just described.
On Roman Beet, Gerard writes that, 'boyled and eaten with oyle, vinegre and pepper, is a most excellent and delicat sallad: but what might be made of the red and beautifull root (which is preferred before the leaves, as well as beautie as in goodness) I refer unto the curious and cunning cooke, who no doubt when hee had the view thereof, and is assured that it is both good and wholesome, will make thereof many and divers dishes, both faire and good'. Gerard therefore recognized the potential of beetroot as a vegetable.
One detail of Gerard's description of his novel red beet or chard (which he saw as distinct from Roman beet) has sown much confusion. He describes the plant that he grew from material the merchant gave him and records that it grew to eight cubits in height. Some commentators have taken this to be the height of the green tops, which is a very improbable height. However, it refers to the height of the long flower spike put out at the end of beetroot’s second year of growth, on which the seeds form. This is undoubtedly a very long flower spike. A cubit is around 45 cm and so Gerard’s flower spike is 360 cm or 12 feet in height. Beta vulgaris flower spikes can easily reach 120 cm or 4 feet in height. However, 360 cm or 12 feet is an exceptionally tall flower spike. Some writers have wondered if the spike was measured correctly or whether Gerard was exaggerating. Even in its day, Gerard's Herball was known to be error-ridden, and we should take his description with a pinch of salt. It is probable, however, that his novel red beet bolted and set seed prematurely. Its roots are depicted as being long and thin in an illustration in the Herball. Gerard gave some of the seeds of the novel beet to his friend John Norden and kept some himself. They both found that, although the original plant was only red, the seeds produced plants of 'many and varied colours'. This variation is till typical of unimproved coloured chard today.
John Parkinson (1567-1650), who knew Gerard, sheds more light on varieties of beet in A Garden of Pleasant Flowers: Paradisi in Sole Paradisus Terrestris (1629), probably the most famous English gardening tome of the seventeenth century. Incidentally, the title contains a pun of the author’s name (Park in Sun). Parkinson was apothecary to King James I and later the first royal botanist to Charles I. He notes a number of varieties of beet in England by 1629: 'some white, some green, some yellow and some red. The leaves of some are of use only, and the root not used, others the root is only used and not the leaves'.
The common white beet was the most common type known in England up until this time. It is the same white beet known to the Greeks and Romans, which was originally found in Sicily. Only the leaves are eaten as food. Parkinson describes it as having many great leaves next to the ground, of a whitish-green colour. The flower stalk of this chard is great, strong, ribbed and crested, bearing leaves and flowers. The flowers are small pale green and give prickly seeds. Parkinson describes the root as being, 'great, long and hard', and being of no use at all.
Parkinson describes a green beet, in addition to white and red beet. This is said to be like white beet, but with a darker green colour. John Tradescant found it on the salt marshes near Rochester. There is a possibility that this could be a form of wild sea beet, which is known to grow in maritime marshes in parts of England.
Parkinson differentiates between the common or small red Beet and the larger Roman red Beet. He suggests that the small red beet is a direct descendent of the black beet known to the Romans. The small red beet is used for its leaves and not its roots. Parkinson describes that it, 'differeth not from the white Beete, but only that it is not so great, and both the leaves and roots are somewhat red'. The leaves of some plants are redder than others. Some plants only have red leaf veins, while others have dark red leaves. Parkinson concludes his description of common red Beete by noting, 'The roote hereof is red, spongy, and not used to bee eaten'. The common red beet is therefore a chard that differs from the white variety mainly in colour.
The Roman Beet is used for both its leaves and roots. Parkinson's account makes it clear that it is the first beetroot to be utilized in England. Romane red Beete is, ?the most excellent Beete of all others: his rootes bee as great as the greatest carrot, exceeding red both within and without, very sweet and good, fit to be eaten'. Parkinson describes how this beet grows higher than common red Beet, while the leaves have a better taste. The roots of Roman Beet are said to sometimes be short like a turnip and sometimes long like a carrot. The seed is said to be like that of small red Beet.
Another variety of beet decribed by Parkinson is Italian Beete, but this classification seems to have been erected mainly to encompass the, 'great red Beete that master Lete a merchant of London gave Master Gerard'. He repeats Gerard’s description of the great leaves and makes no mention of the roots.
Parkinson describes how the leaves of all the types of beet described can be put into the pot among other herbs to make pottage. They can also be boiled whole and served with meats, which he notes is popular in France and England. He notes the roots of the common red Beet are used by some adventurous cooks, but are not usually eaten. However, the roots of Roman Beet appear to be a new fashion in 1629, 'the Romane red Beete is of much use among cookes and is grown of late dayes into a great cuftome'. Cooks used them to garnish dishes of meat and fish and may have used it to colour dishes also. He describes how, 'rootes of the Romane red Beete being boyled, are eaten while hot with a little oyle and vinegar'. It is accounted a delicate salad for the winter, which can also be eaten cold.
In his celebrated Herbal, Nicolas Culpeper (1616-1654) adds little to the descriptions of beet made by Gerard and Parkinson, but he does compiles an extensive list of medicinal uses of chard and beetroot. In The English Physician, or Herball (1653), Culpeper notes that White Beet and Red Beet are the two best known sorts of beet. For White and Red Beet, Culpeper repeats the descriptions found in Parkinson. He does not mention Roman red Beet, but as a doctor he was interested in readily available herbal remedies rather than food plants. The medical uses of beet described by Culpeper are considered in Chapter Six. Incidentally, medical herbals from Germany from this time had started linking plants and astrology. Culpeper followed this practice, becoming a trained astrologer. In his Herball, white beets are considered to be under the influence of Saturn, while red beets are under Jupiter.
While Roman red Beet appears to have been newly fashionable when Parkinson wrote his famous book, by the time Robert May wrote The Accomplisht Cook in 1660 it appears to have become an established vegetable in England. John Evelyn in his book Acetaria of 1699 writes that cold slices of boiled beetroot make a 'grateful winter sallet' eaten with oil and vinegar. He adds that the French and Italians had contrived beetroot into curious figures to adorn their salads.
Jane Grigson notes that around 1760 the word vegetable starts to be used in its modern sense, as a herb or root grown for food. Vegetables at this time were no longer mainly seen as medicinal herbs or the preserve of herbalists, but as pleasurable food in their own right. However, the idea that vegetables are good for us has persisted to the present day, with sound reason. Beetroot became one of the plants listed for vegetable growers in what evolved into the seed catalogue. Lovell had listed Red Roman Beet in 1665, although in 1726 it was still the only type of beetroot listed in England by Townsend the seedsman. However, Sturtevant notes that Mawe and Bryant both listed a second type, Long Red, in 1778 and 1783, respectively. This variety is also referred to as called common Long Red and was described by Vilmorin in 1885 as Long Blood Red.
Back in Italy, gardeners were cultivating distinct varieties of beetroot. Bassano was found in all Italian markets by 1841. Vilmorin described it in 1885. It has a prototypical cylindrical or flat-bottomed red root and it may be the prototypic cylindrical beetroot described by Camerarius and Daleschamp in the late sixteenth century. Cylindrical beetroot are also referred to as intermediate because they are believed to have been a halfway stage between the original long-rooted beetroot and modern globe-rooted varieties. Bassano was named after a town in the Venetian Alps. Incidentally, the town of Bassano is also famous for its asparagus, which has been grown there since the sixteenth century. Another early Italian variety of beetroot is Barabietola di Chioggia, which was first grown in market gardens around Venice around the sixteenth century. This variety has a distinctive red and white circular bullseye pattern. The town of Chioggia is situated at the southern end of the Venetian lagoon and is a major fishing port on the Adriatic. Beetroot was cultivated here many centuries ago, in sight of the sea, under conditions similar to those where its wild ancestor is still found.
Beetroot varieties were also developed in other European countries. The white-fleshed Blankoma, for example, was an early Dutch introduction. Dutch plant breeders have subsequently produced many new beetroot varieties, including Bikores, Libero and the recent hybrid Pablo.
During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, uncontrolled hybridization between leaf beets, chards and early long-rooted beetroot produced a wide variety of forms. Beta vulgaris is primarily outcrossing and reproduction is by cross-fertilization rather than self-fertilization. This favoured a wave of hybridization, providing the raw material from which modern beetroot varieties have arisen. Roman Beet and possibly other early long-rooted types became variable in leaf and root morphology due to hybridization with leaf beets, chards and other beetroot. Root shapes other than long appeared and where selected for in gardens. By the nineteenth century, a wide range of cylindrical, flat and globular varieties were introduced to growers, particularly in Northern Europe. Cylindrical forms are also called intermediate, because their root shape is midway between long-rooted and globular.
In comparison to beetroot, leaf beets have been relatively unchanged since ancient times. The word chard derives from the Latin and French words for thistle (chardon, charde), an unrelated plant to Beta vulgaris. The French writer Bauhin describes, in 1596, dark (black), white, red and yellow chards, along with chard having a particularly broad stalk, and wild sea beet. His chards were very similar to coloured chards described by writers in the ancient world. From the start of the 1800s, however, plant breeders started to produce a range of improved chard varieties. These types became more compact in appearance through selective breeding.
Although initially adopted to describe broad-stemmed leaf beet, chard gradually became a generic term used to describe the succulent stalks or leaf petioles of globe artichoke, cardoon and other vegetables. The term Swiss chard derives from nineteenth century seed catalogues. The Swiss pre-fix was used to distinguish Beta vulgaris with broad leaf petioles from other plants labelled generically as chard. It is unclear why chards were considered to be Swiss, although some commentators suggest that it was the Dutch who were responsible.
In 1885, Vilmorin describes White, Swiss, Curled Swiss, Silver and Chilean varieties of chard. These are described as being vegetables for the table and as garden ornamentals. Silver or silver-leaf chard (Poiree blonde a carde blanche Vilmorin 1883) is described as a light green form of Swiss chard, with shorter and much broader leaf stalks. Chilean chard is a form usually grown for ornamental purposes. They have very broad leaf stalks that are often twisted. The leaves can be puckered like a Savoy cabbage, as also occurs in Curled Swiss chard. Ornamental Chilean chard was probably introduced in Belgium in the early to mid nineteenth century.
Only one variety of beetroot was listed in the USA prior to 1806, a long-rooted red beet in McMahon's seed catalogue. However, Sturtevant noted that, in 1826, Thorbum had listed four varieties in the USA: Long Red, Bassano, Egyptian or Flat Egyptian and Detroit. The Long Red appears to be the same variety recorded in England since 1778. Bassano was imported from Italy, where it was commonly grown over a hundred years previously. Flat Egyptian is an American production, although it may be derived from material originally imported from Egypt and the Middle East. It was first grown around Boston in about 1869. Detroit is another American-bred variety, which was introduced in 1897 and is still widely grown today. Detroit can be used as a winter crop, or harvested young as a summer crop. When Detroit arrived in Britain and several other European countries by 1900 it helped to establish the trend toward small-rooted beetroot being grown as a summer crop for salads.
Improved beetroot varieties were relatively slow in reaching Britain. Only two kinds, Red Roman and Long Red, were available from English seed merchants prior to 1800. In the seventeenth century beetroot was viewed as a sweet novelty food. A recipe for crimson biscuits of red beetroot survives from the eighteenth century. The British really took to beetroot, however, in the Victorian era, when it became popular as a salad vegetable. The juice of beetroot was also used as a hair rinse and a dye for fabric. A nineteenth century English vegetable garden has been reinstated at The Lost Gardens of Heligan in Cornwall, England. The gardens of the Heligan estate went into decline during after the First World War, but were restored from a condition of extreme neglect during the 1990s. The productive garden has been lovingly restored with vegetable varieties that would have been grown in the estate’s heyday. The main beetroot varieties (all pre-1880) cultivated are the long-rooted Cheltenham Green Top, the French variety Crapaudine, the tapering cylindrical-rooted Cylindra, the early American varieties Detroit Globe and Burpee’s Golden, and the Italian variety Chioggia.
Up until the twentieth century beetroot has primarily been grown as a winter root vegetable. Large-rooted maincrop beetroot, including tapered and globe varieties, give heavy yields and can be lifted late in the season for use during the winter months. Large-rooted maincrop beetroot has been eaten as a staple for many years in Central and Eastern Europe. However, during the late twentieth century, beetroot has increasingly been regarded as a summer crop. Smaller-rooted varieties have been bred and cultivated primarily as a salad vegetable. Smaller globe-shaped beetroot have become predominate in many areas as a summer crop, because they mature early, grow rapidly and produce good yields.
Beetroot varieties exist that are early, medium and late maturing. Therefore, beetroot can now be grown for most of the year. With the popularity of summer beetroot increasing after the Second World War, however, a large proportion of the crop was boiled and pickled. This made beetroot become practically synonymous with beetroot pickled in malt vinegar, especially in Western Europe between the 1950s and the 1970s. Thankfully, this is now changing, and later in the book we will see how the culinary uses of beetroot are now more diverse than ever before.
All parts of Beta vulgaris have almost certainly been fed to livestock since at least Roman times. Beetroot was the first cultivated type of Beta vulgaris to be selected for its swollen roots. There was no distinguishable fodder beet or sugar beet until the eighteenth century and, therefore, all swollen-rooted Beta vulgaris before this time are considered as beetroot or beet. The tops and roots of beetroot have mainly been grown for fodder in recent centuries in France, Germany and several other countries. In countries with cooler climates, large white-fleshed varieties have been preferentially chosen for storage for fodder during the winter. The breeding of selected lines of Beta vulgaris especially to feed to cattle and other animals, however, started in relatively recent times.
The Abbé de Commerell wrote the first known description of beet being grown and specifically fed to cattle in 1787. He referred to mangel (Runkelrübe) being used as fodder beet in the Rhineland in the 1750s. Mangel derives from a yellow type of beet with good winter storage properties. This large winter beet soon became cultivated around Europe as a fodder beet. Mangel wurzel was also being cultivated in North American by 1806.
Mangel or mangel-wurzel probably first originated through a cross between a yellow-rooted beetroot and a leaf beet. Vilmorin describes at least sixteen kinds of mangel in the late nineteenth century. Mangels are regarded as too coarse in texture for human consumption. The roots, and also the leaves, however, provide a nutritious food for cattle, which can be produced abundantly and relatively cheaply. Fodder beet is generally preferred to carrot and turnip for livestock. Recent crosses between mangel with sugar beet have produced modern fodder beet cultivars.
In commercial terms, sugar beet is the most important cultivated form of Beta vulgaris. It was recognized in the sixteenth century that a sweet syrup could be extracted from the swollen roots of beet. From the mid-eighteenth century, beetroot with large roots and white flesh were being grown in the German regions of Magdeburg and Halberstadt, and in Silesia. These beetroot had been selected for their sweetness and large size. The Russian chemist Andreas Sigismund Marggraf (1709-1782) discovered that crystals from syrup extracted from Silesian beet were identical to crystals obtained from sugar cane. In both cases, the sugar crystals were pure sucrose. Marggraf was an eminent scientist and the President of the Berlin Academy of Sciences. He presented his results to the Academy in 1747 and the proceedings of this meeting were translated into French two years later. The amount of sugar obtained by Marggraf from beet was relatively low, however, and at the time it did not seem worth extracting commercially.
Marggraf's student, Franz Carl Achard (1753-1821), was the first person to select and process beets specifically to produce sugar. In a garden in Kaulsdorf, a village near Berlin, he grew different types of beet to determine which would be the best to develop for sugar extraction. He compared a range of beets that were used to feed livestock in southern Germany and found that conical-shaped roots, with white skins and white flesh, yielded the highest amounts of sugar. He also showed that soil type, growing conditions and cultivation methods influenced the root’s sugar content. Initially Achard found great variability in the plants produced from selected seed, but after a few years he obtained a line that consistently produced higher levels of sugar than previously recorded. This selected line was called White Silesian Beet and it is the ancestor of all modern sugar beet cultivars.
Achard presented the King of Prussia, Frederick William III, with a sugarloaf made from beet in 1799 and requested the funding necessary to start large-scale sugar production. In 1801, the King gave Achard the money to purchase an estate in Cunern in Lower Silesia. The first sugar beet processing factory was set up there in 1802. Despite technical difficulties and delays, Achard obtained levels of sugar (around 4 to 6% in fresh roots) that were sufficient to attract commercial interest. This launched sugar beet as a commercial crop.
A friend and neighbour of Achard, Moritz Baron von Koppy, built a much larger sugar beet processing factory at Krayn, near Cunern, in 1805. Koppy established cultivation methods for sugar beet, improved the efficiency of its processing, and found uses for the by-products of processing. The tops, beet pulp and molasses were fed to animals, for instance, while the dried pulp made a coffee substitute and alcohol obtained from the molasses was used to make vinegar. Achard summarized the knowledge gained by himself and Koppy in a widely-read book.
Sugar beet is therefore a relatively recent crop. At the start of the nineteenth century, all Europe's sugar was obtained from sugar cane grown on plantations in the Americas. The slave revolts in the plantations of Santa Domingo in the 1790s, however, were the first sign that supplies of imported cane sugar could not always be relied upon. The flow of sugar could be disrupted, while a sense of unease in was starting to develop in parts of Europe about a system that relied on slavery.
The sugar beet industry in Europe effectively started in France and Belgium in 1811, at the instigation of Napoleon Bonaparte. His economic plan for continental Europe, in the first decade of the seventeenth century, placed an emphasis on developments that reduced imports of goods supplied by British colonial trade, including sugar cane. Napoleon's army was occupying Silesia in around 1810 and he fully exploited the advances being made there in sugar beet production. A French Commission had confirmed Achard’s findings and presented Napoleon with loaves of beet sugar in January 1811. Later that year, Napoleon instigated a policy that rapidly increased beet sugar production in France and in countries under French control. In 1811, around forty small beet factories, mainly in France and Germany, were established. This indigenous source of sugar soon became of strategic importance to Napoleon, because English naval blockades stopped imports of cane sugar from the West Indies reaching France during the Napoleonic Wars.
After the decline of the Napoleonic Empire, from 1813 onwards, the rapid spread of sugar beet cultivation was stopped, and cane imports were resumed. However, sugar beet cultivation, albeit over much smaller areas, continued in France and Germany. The French experimented with different lines of beet derived from Achard's original selections. By 1824, five types of beet selected for sugar production were described (grosse rouge, petite rouge, rouge ronde, jaune and blanche). A distinction was made during the 1830s between types of forage or fodder beets (Runkelrübe) and types of sugar beet (Zucherrübe)
The plant breeder Louis de Vilmorin (1816-1860) discovered that sugar beet root extracts of high density yielded more sugar, enabling him to devise a method using specific gravity to quantify sugar content in comparison with solutions of known sugar concentration. In 1852, this technique was modified into the silver ingot method, which became a standard for measuring the sugar content of beet juice. The polarimeter - a device to measure the optical properties of liquids - was also invented around this time; the amount of sugar in beet juice being quantified using the Ventzke scale, named after the its inventor. Vilmorin and other plant breeders were able to make rapid progress in improving sugar beet through continuous selection using these new techniques. From the 1830s, beet sugar production again increased in France and Germany. By the 1870s, numerous beet factories had been established throughout central and eastern Europe.
Sugar beet has been cultivated continuously in Germany since the time of Achard. Systematic plant breeding soon led to the production of improved varieties in the latter half of the nineteenth century. A new variety called Imperial was produced in around 1860 near Halle, for instance, which had a uniform appearance and a relatively high sugar content (11-13%). By 1880, breeding programs in France and Germany had resulted in sugar beet with up to 18-20% sugar per fresh weight of root. This is an acceptable level of sugar by today's standards. Around the 1880s, however, the aims of plant breeders diverged. Raising sugar yield ceased to be the only goal for sugar beet improvement. The different types of sugar beet that were subsequently produced will be considered in the following chapter.
Sugar beet cultivation started in the USA in the 1830s, when German and French immigrants arrived bringing the necessary technology with them. By the 1890s, sugar beet processing facilities had been established in California, Nebraska, Utah and Colorado. A large expansion US beet sugar occurred in 1900. By the 1990s, around 8% of the world's total sugar beet crop was grown in the USA. However, this area is now declining, due to the increased importance of corn syrup and sweeteners obtained from maize.
Sugar beet production started later in other European countries. In England, for example, the first sugar beet was cultivated in 1920s, although it is now a major crop that is focused on Suffolk. Today, sugar beet is grown throughout Europe and in North America.
In 1900, more of the world's sugar (sucrose) was produced by beet (63%) than from cane. However, this peak in the proportion of sugar produced by beet was followed by a relative decline due to an international agreement in 1901 that stopped import taxes being levied on cane sugar. Today, around two-fifths of the world's sugar is produced from sugar beet. Sugar beet still has an advantage over sugar cane, in that it grows in temperate regions where consumption of sugar is highest. Indeed, sugar consumption in industrial counties skyrocketed in the late twentieth century. This has been one factor in the dramatic increase in rates of obesity observed, especially in North America.
The rise of alternative sweeteners, a public health backlash against excessive sugar in foodstuffs, and a surplus of sugar beet in the expanded European Union of 2004 are among the factors that have placed sugar beet cultivation at a crossroads. However, new and diversified markets should ensure that it continues to be an economically important crop well into the future. Brazil first grew sugar beet for ethanol production (gasohol) in 1979. Its use to make biofuel and other industrial products is set to increase.
Sugar beet was one of the first crops to be genetically modified. Biotechnology is being utilized to produce a range of novel sugars and proteins in sugar beet. The future prospects for modifying Beta vulgaris will be examined further in Chapter Four. Beetroot, meanwhile, continues to enjoy a revival as a healthy, wholesome and no-nonsense vegetable. In later chapters, its health benefits and culinary versatility will be explored. Its future looks rosy.

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© Copyright Stephen Nottingham, 2004

July 2004, February 2006. SFN.