Botany Gardening Vegetables

What’s the Difference Between a Turnip and a Rutabaga?

By Larry Hodgson

Question: I read with interest your article Why Didn’t My Turnips Produce a Bulb?, which made me think yet again about something I never quite understood. What is the difference between a turnip and a rutabaga? They look pretty similar to me!

Mark Osselin

Answer: The two members of the cabbage family actually are different plants, although they have a lot in common, including not only most of their genes, but also a thickened, often rounded taproot and edible leaves. 

2 turnips
A typical turnip: small, round and white with a purple top. Photo: thebittenword, Wikimedia Commons

The turnip is a thick-rooted selection (Brassica rapa rapa) of wild mustard (B. rapa), a highly variable and wide-ranging Eurasian plant that has been developed into a whole range of different edible plants, including bok choy (B. rapa chinensis), field mustard (B. rapa oleifera) and Chinese cabbage (B. rapa pekinensis). 

The form with an edible taproot (the turnip) is believed to have been developed over 2,000 years ago and was known to both the Greeks and Romans. Essentially, through generations of selection, thick-rooted forms of the wild species, which originally only had a narrow taproot, were developed and grown, both for human consumption and as livestock fodder. 

Rutabaga being sliced into sticks.
Rutabaga being prepared for cooking. Photo: Joanna Alderson, Flickr

The rutabaga (Brassica napus napobrassica) apparently originated spontaneously in Europe sometime in the late Middle Ages (although the first printed reference to it only appeared in 1620), when a cabbage (Brassica oleracea), a different, but closely related species, crossed with a turnip (B. rapa rapa). 

This is an unusual cross, as the parent plants have different chromosome numbers (18 for cabbage and 20 for turnip) and that usually results in sterility, but the hybrid plant spontaneously produced tetraploid seed with 38 chromosomes, resulting in a plant reproducible by seed. 

Farmers recognized the value of the larger-rooted rutabaga and began growing it, especially in Scandinavia. It was introduced into the rest of Europe through Sweden in the late 18th century, hence the name: rutabaga comes from the Swedish term rotabagge for lumpy (bagge) and root (rot). For the same reason, it’s also known as Swedish turnip or swede in many areas. 

How They Differ

  • Turnips are usually much smaller than rutabagas.
  • Typically, turnips have white flesh and rutabagas have yellow flesh, so much so that, in some areas, turnips are called white turnips and rutabagas, yellow turnips. However, there are white, yellow, orange and red-fleshed varieties of both.
  • Turnips seen in your local supermarket usually have white skin or white skin with a purple top, while rutabagas usually have yellow skin with a purple top. Both though can come in a wide range of colors.
  • The skin of turnips is smooth and thin and peeling is not absolutely necessary. Rutabagas have a thicker, rougher skin that you usually peel off.
  • Rutabagas sold in supermarkets have often been dipped in wax to preserve them, but that is not the case with turnips.
Rutabaga leaves
Rutabaga leaves. Photo: bonnieplants.com
  • Rutabaga leaves are smooth, waxy and bluish green like cabbage leaves; turnip leaves are green, somewhat rough and lightly covered with sparse stiff hairs.
  • Turnip leaves grow directly from the top of the root: there is no stem at harvest. Rutabagas form, over time, a short, thick stem on top of the root. 
  • The leaves of both are edible. Indeed, some turnips, like ‘Seven Top’, are grown strictly for their greens.
  • Rutabaga roots are always more or less round, but there are long, carrotlike forms of turnip while some turnips, like the aforementioned ‘Seven Top’, produce no thickened root at all.
  • Turnips are fast-growing vegetables and need to be harvested when they’re still quite small and tender, usually less 4 inches (10 cm) in diameter, or they become woody and inedible. You can harvest two or more crops per year in most areas. Rutabagas are much slower to mature and are usually sown only in the spring for a late fall harvest.
  • Turnips can be grown almost anywhere, even in the tropics, as long as they are grown during cooler months. Rutabagas need a long growing season under fairly cool conditions and therefore only do well in cooler climates.
  • As for taste, turnips have a stronger taste than rutabagas, somewhat bitter or peppery like a radish, especially when eaten raw … or you could turn that around and say rutabagas taste milder and sweeter than turnips.

If you’re just out shopping for vegetables, you could simply think of turnips as being small and light and rutabagas as being big and heavy! 

Larry Hodgson is one of Canada’s best-known garden communicators. He has notably been editor-in-chief of HousePlant Magazine, Fleurs, Plantes et Jardins, À Fleur de Pot and Houseplant Forum magazines and is currently the garden correspondent for Le Soleil and radio garden commentator for CKIA-FM Radio. He has written for many garden publications in both the United States and Canada, including Canadian Gardening, Harrowsmith, Horticulture, Fine Gardening and Organic Gardening. He also speaks frequently to horticultural groups throughout Canada and the U.S. His book credits include The Garden Lover’s Guide to Canada, Complete Guide to Houseplants, Making the Most of Shade, Perennials for Every Purpose, Annuals for Every Purpose, and Houseplants for Dummies, as well as nearly 60 other titles in English and French. He is a past president of the Garden Writers Association (now Garden Communicators International) and the winner of the prestigious 2006 Garden Media Promoter Award offered by the Perennial Plant Association. He resides in Quebec City, Quebec, Canada.

3 comments on “What’s the Difference Between a Turnip and a Rutabaga?

  1. Swedes are also I think slightly sweeter, rounded flavoured and more starchy than turnips. We often have mashed swede but not mashed turnip. Turnip is just a bit too watery.

  2. We grow turnips here in the south, my wife buy the wax covered rutabaga in product section sometimes.

  3. That is interesting, but I have never grown a single rutabaga. With so many other root vegetables, there had been no need to. I suppose I should, since people have asked about them.

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