A Botanical Illustration That Helps me get my Turnips Straight!

© Aislinn Adams  Turnip, Brassica rapa.

A Botanical illustration of a vegetable with a very old pedigree, turnip, Brassica rapa.

I chose the theme of fruit and vegetables for my June blogs but I have so many botanical illustrations to choose from my ten years illustrating the “Digging In” gardening column for the Washington Post that I’ve decided to continue this theme into July. So far too I’ve written only about fruits though several have been regarded as vegetables- see my blogs on plum tomatoes and sweet peppers. This week’s botanical illustration is of a true vegetable with a very old pedigree, turnip, Brassica rapa.

Turnips, Swedish turnips, or rutabaga?

There are several different vegetables originating from this species including Oil-seed turnip rape and many varieties of Chinese cabbage. Brassica rapa originates from the wild turnip, Brassica campestris. This turnip should not be confused with the Swedish turnip, Brassica napus, also known as swedes or rutabaga. The Swedish turnip is a winter vegetable and the one I think of when I hear the word turnip. It’s the one I associate with my childhood. I remember my mother buying it in the local ‘green grocers’: as vegetable shops were called then in Ireland. That Swedish turnip variety was about six inches in height: a solid, purple-skinned taproot, usually round in shape. I also remember it being difficult to chop. We ate it boiled and mashed with some butter and maybe a bit of parsley for garnish. The turnip, Brassica rapa, though similar in shape, is a ‘softer’ tuberous vegetable and easier to prepare in my opinion.

The Irish origin of the Halloween ‘Jack-o-lantern’

I also remember struggling to ‘carve’ out the inside of the swede turnip one Halloween for a lamp and ultimately giving up due to its tough, solid interior, not at all as easy to carve as a pumpkin: the vegetable of choice for Halloween ‘Jack-o-lanterns’ in the U.S.A. In Ireland turnips were hollowed out and small embers placed inside to ward off evil spirits. It is believed that this is the origin of the ubiquitous Halloween ‘Jack-o-lantern’ today. I’m guessing that when the Halloween tradition came to the U.S.A. someone must have hit on pumpkins as a much easier option- maybe after a similar experience to myself!

A European vegetable from pre-Christian times.

Turnip cultivation goes back to pre-Christian times. Its native range is uncertain but it has been suggested that central Europe is its likely place of origin. Theophrastus, the Greek Philosopher, knew of it in the 4th century BCE and many early varieties were given Greek place names. Later the Roman philosopher Pliny the elder listed 12 distinct varieties- categorizing them into the two groups- rapa and napus.

Origin of the name.

The turnip is related to cabbage: the scientific name Brassica is the Latin for cabbage and rapa means turnip. According to the illustrated encyclopedia “Vegetables, Herbs and Fruits” the common name ‘turnip’ comes from a combination of the Anglo-Saxon word ‘naep’ (from napus, in Brassica napus, the botanical name for rutabaga or swedes) and turn meaning round.

These days I enjoy eating a variety of turnips, including this white one illustrated above. I like to chop them up and bake them with a variety of other vegetables. I haven’t seen the purple turnip from my childhood here in the U.S.A.- where I now live- but one of these days I’ll find it I’m sure and then I’ll try it again, boiled and mashed with a little butter. However, I’m sticking with pumpkins for our Halloween lamps.

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