We have harvested the last of the first planting of beet root. This delectable root is a fairly recent addition to the English palette and remains a stranger to many Williamsburg tables. It’s approval, however, is spreading amongst Virginia gardeners. Those who have made the experiment are duly rewarded with both roots and greens.
The white beet, known to modern gardeners as the chard, is of ancient lineage and was well regarded by both the Greeks and Romans. The red beet root was quite obscure until it was brought to perfection in Germany during the 16th century. It was, however, from Italy that the English learned of this excellent root being first recorded by John Parkinson in 1629 when he wrote: “The Roman red Beete…is both for leafe and roote the most excellent Beete of all others: his rootes bee as great as the greatest Carrot, exceeding red both within and without, very sweete and good, fit to be eaten the root is sometimes short like a Turnep … and sometimes … like a carrot and long.” The earliest examples of beet root tended to be long and somewhat slender, very similar to an heirloom variety known as the Crapaudine beet.
The preferred beet root in the 17th and early 18th century had red leaves. By the middle of the 18th century the beet root with green leaves and round roots replaced the older red leaved varieties. Beets are weak rooted plants and must be defended from competition both from weeds and from each other as they are sensitive to crowding. A timely and judicious thinning will not only insure that your roots are well formed but provide a pleasant repast when the thinning’s are steamed with both root and greens together.
For a further explanation of the beet root and its kinds you are encouraged to inspect Vegetable Gardening the Colonial Williamsburg way, 18th century methods for today’s organic gardeners (Rodale Press) .