Every year, the National Garden Bureau, a non-profit organization promoting the pleasures of home gardening, selects one perennial, one annual, one edible plant and one bulb to celebrate. It’s a great way to discover a new plant or to learn a bit more about a plant you may already be growing.
Here’s the third of 2018’s four plants, the beet (Beta vulgaris). Go to 2018: The Year of the Coreopsis and 2018: The Year of the Calibrachoa to learn more about this year’s perennial and annual honorees.
A Trip Back in Time
The wild beet (Beta vulgaris maritima) is a coastal plant usually called sea beet and grows naturally in Europe, North Africa and into the Middle East, mostly around the Mediterranean and Caspian seas and along the Atlantic coast.
It was originally cultivated as a medicinal plant as far back as the second millennium CE, possibly domesticated in Mesopotamia, and used both to treat fevers and constipation and also as an aphrodisiac, then later for its edible leaves. Curiously, the root itself was not consumed, since the wild species only has fairly woody brown roots not worth harvesting.
This early form corresponds to what we know today as spinach beet or perpetual spinach (B. vulgaris Cicla Group), once a popular vegetable, but largely forgotten today. Studies show it was known and used by most of the peoples the region: Mesopotamians, Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, etc.
The vegetable with the bulbous root we know in our era as the beet (beetroot in the United Kingdom), which taxonomists put into the B. vulgaris Conditiva Group, is of unknown origin, possibly derived from more tuberous-rooted plants found in North Africa. It only became popular in Germany and Russia near the end of the 1500s and didn’t catch on in the rest of Europe until the end of the 18th century.
Swiss chard (B. vulgaris Flavescens Group), whose thickened petioles are believed to have resulted from a mutation, sugar beet (B. vulgaris Altissima Group), a commercial crop that provides 20% of the world’s supply of sugar, and mangelwurst or mangel beet (B. vulgaris Crassa Group), whose leaves and bulbous roots are mostly used as animal fodder, are all beets as well.
The beet was long placed in the Chenopodiaceae family, now eliminated, its members now nested within the Amaranthaceae. It’s a biennial, usually flowering the second year. However, unless you’re growing beets for their seeds, you would normally raise them as an annual crop, sowing them in the spring for a summer harvest or late summer for a fall one. In mild climates, beets are sown in the fall as a winter crop.
The flowers, quite unremarkable, are wind-pollinated. Any of the beets (beetroot, sugar beet, Swiss chard, etc.) can cross with any other.
Lots of Color
Beet (beetroots) are much more variable than most people think.
First, the reddish-purple color we know so well is only one of the beet’s colors. There are yellow and golden beets as well as white ones, plus candy cane beets with distinct red and white zoned roots. The petioles are the same color as the root, but even the leaves can be purple, as in the popular both ornamental and edible beet, ‘Bull’s Blood’.
This range of colors comes mostly from various betalains, which are antioxidant pigments. Some people are unable to break down betalains, either ever or occasionally, leading to “beeturia” (red urine), a harmless but I would suspect rather startling condition. Betalains have long been used as a coloring agent in tomato paste, jams, jellies and sauces and were once used as rouge and lip stain (hence the expression “red as a beet”).
The root shape is usually globular, but there are also cylindrical beets, much like carrots. I find them practical, as you can get more beet root in less space … and they’re easier to slice. Other shapes include top-shaped, flattened and blocky.
Beets are a common vegetable, even a staple food in many regions. In Eastern Europe, for example, borscht (beet soup) is served with nearly every fall and winter meal. Beets are eaten boiled, roasted, steamed, raw and pickled, cold or warm, sliced, diced, mashed and grated, on their own or in mixed into salads and soups. The traditional Pennsylvania Dutch pickled beet egg is made by marinating hard-boiled eggs in beet juice and vinegar. And of course, if you’ve ever eaten a hamburger in Australia, you know that it will be coiffed with a slice of pickled beet rather than a slice of tomato.
Beets are high in fiber, vitamins A and C, antioxidants, calcium, potassium, phosphorus and folic acid and have more iron than most other vegetables, making them popular with the health conscious. Beet powder is sold encapsulated as a nutritional enhancement, slices are dried to make healthy chips and beet juice is being marketed as a natural energy drink. Wine (red wine, one would presume) has also been made from beet juice. Beets (mostly sugar beets) are even being used to produce bioethanol and may be helping drive your car!
The leaves, called tops, are edible as well and can be eaten raw or cooked as you would spinach. Some varieties, like ‘Early Wonder Tall Top’, are considered dual purpose beets, grown for both tops and roots. Also, beet sprouts (freshly germinated seeds) are easy to grow on a windowsill, even in winter, and baby beet leaves are catching on as a salad ingredient. And of course, many gardeners know that, as you thin your beets, you always harvest the thinnings, even though their roots are still unswollen, as the first beet crop of the season.
Beets have a reputation of having an “earthy” taste that some people don’t appreciate. This is caused by the presence of geosmin, the same organic compound that produces the “soil after rain” smell most people recognize well, as the human nose is extremely sensitive to geosmin and is able to detect it at concentrations as low as 5 parts per trillion. Geosmin is not present in all beets (if it bothers you, look for beets with a “mild flavor”), plus it is eliminated by pickling (geosmin breaks down in acid conditions, such as in vinegar).
Beets seeds are generally sown directly in the garden, although they also grow well in containers, usually in early spring or late summer in temperate areas, as they do best under cooler temperatures. Sow them about ¼ to ½ inches (1 to 1.25 cm) deep and 1–2 inches (2.5 to 5 cm) apart and keep the soil evenly moist to encourage germination.
There is no need to add mycorrhizal fungi to the soil of beets when you sow. Beets, along with their close relative, spinach, are among the rare plants that do not form associations with soil fungi.
Beet “seeds” are actually glomerules, little clusters of 2–4 seeds, and usually at least two will germinate. As a result, beets always need thinning. That said, there are now a few “monogerm” beet varieties on the market, with more sure to come in the future. This characteristic is still pretty rare and will be mentioned in the variety’s description.
To thin beets, pinch or cut back seedlings at their base when they are 1–2 inches (2.5 to 5 cm) tall, leaving plants about 3 to 5 inches (8 to 15 cm) apart. This will encourage larger and better-shaped roots for harvest. (To a certain degree, the larger the spacing, the larger the beet.)
Beets prefer slightly acidic soils with some boron content (to meet this need, consider watering them with seaweed fertilizer) and limited nitrogen. They are highly salt tolerant and will grow in soils few other plants will tolerate. Beets like about 1 inch (2 cm) of water per week.
Most beets mature in 50–95 days. Roots are normally harvested by gently pulling the tops or digging the roots when they are about 2 1⁄2” to 3” (6.5 to 7.5 cm) in diameter, but can be harvested larger or smaller as desired.
Finally, beetroots store well, both in the ground, indoors in a cold room … and practically forever once pickled!
The National Garden Bureau recognizes the beet is a perfect food for the health conscious as well as an easy and fun-to-grow vegetable for all ages. It could very well be the kale of the 21stcentury!
Take advantage of the Year of the Beet to grow this ancient yet constantly renewed vegetable in your own garden!