Rutabagas look funny, their name sounds funny, and, let’s face it, they have a rather odd family history.
Imagine deciding to cross a cabbage with a turnip. What would you get? A rutabaga! The name comes from the Swedish words for stumpy root and it was first noted as growing wild in the early 1600s. Rutabagas are also known as swedes, yellow turnips, and Russian, Canadian, and Swedish turnips. The scientific name, Brassica napobrassica, tells us that it is a member of the Brassica family, which includes broccoli. Another interesting bit of history and rutabagas - since before the Middle Ages, people have carved frightening faces on turnips and rutabagas and placed them on windowsills and doorsteps to ward off evil spirits. Yes, these are the early jack-o-lanterns of pumpkin fame!
Rutabagas are biennial plants, which means they take two years to go through their complete lifecycle. The first year is dedicated to vegetative growth and the second year is used for seed production. The root we eat is actually made up of the base of the leafy stem (think cabbage) and the hypocotyls, which is part that grows between the true root and the first seedling leaves (cotyledons). You can tell the difference between a turnip and a rutabaga by the ribbed neck seen on rutabagas. Rutabaga flowers are small and pale yellow.
How to grow rutabagas
Rutabagas grow and ripen best in cool weather, making August and September the best time to start seeds. Rutabaga seeds should be planted 1/2” deep in rich soil. They transplant well, so starting them in small containers is a good way to give them a head start. Seedlings should be placed 12-18” apart. Rutabagas grow a little larger than turnips and need a few extra weeks to reach maturity. They are normally ready to harvest within 80-100 days. Rutabagas can grow pretty much anywhere, but their flavor and texture improve significantly when they are grown in soil treated with compost and watered regularly. Insufficient watering can cause a woody texture and splitting can occur with irregular watering. Soaker hoses are an excellent idea for rutabagas. Rutabagas prefer a pH of 5.5 to 7.0 and a rock-free environment. Like other brassicas, rutabagas should not be grown in the same spot for more than 2 years at a time.
Rutabaga pests & diseases
Rutabagas actually provide good weed suppression with their thick, broad, blue-ish colored leaves. Rutabaga leaves are frequently eaten by cutworms, caterpillars, root maggots, wire worms, flea beetles, aphids, and slugs, but I haven't noticed any of that feeding causing problems for the roots themselves. Using row covers while the plants are small can protect them from many of these pests as long as the covers are in place before the pests arrive. Planting mint, garlic, nasturtium, fennel, or marigold nearby can either repel or act as a trap crop. Clubroot is a fungal disease found in poorly drained, acidic soils. This fungus can remain viable in the soil for up to 20 years, so keep your rutabagas away from any areas that have ever been infected.
How to harvest and store rutabagas
One of the reasons rutabagas are an important fallback food in times of starvation is that they store well. Rutabagas should be harvested when they are about the size of a grapefruit. When rutabagas are small, they are more tender. As they mature, they become sweeter. To harvest rutabagas, simply pull or dig them from the ground. You can leave them in the ground for longer periods of time by trimming the leaves and heavily mulching the area with straw. Harvested rutabagas can be stored for months by trimming all but the top inch or two of greenery and storing in a cool, moist location, as close to 32-degrees F as possible, without freezing. Commercially, rutabagas are dipped in paraffin wax to prolong storage.
Rutabagas as food
Rutabagas are grown for the their roots and leaves. The roots are a starchy equivalent to potatoes in soups, stews, and casseroles. In Scotland, potatoes and rutabagas are boiled and mashed separately to create ‘tatties and neeps’ - now’s there’s a fun menu item! An interesting note, thanks to genetic research: some people find rutabagas, as well as watercress, horseradish, and broccoli, extremely bitter-tasting, compared to the rest of us. This is due to a specific gene that affects the bitter taste receptor. So, if someone says they really can’t eat members of this group, they may be telling you the truth! In our family, we have discovered that roasted rutabagas are surprisingly delicious!
A serving of rutabaga roots contain 42% of the RDA for Vitamin C. The tender new greens can also be eaten, just be sure to only remove a few leaves per plant. They can add a zesty bite to salads.
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!