Wednesday, 18 September 2013

The Beets go on

A Profile of the Beets


Modern scientific: Beta vulgaris


Common names: Silver beet, Beetroot, Beet, chard, Swiss chard, spinach.


To most Auatralians the term beet, or at least beet root conjures up images of think red slices lurking in tins.  But far from being a recent introduction to our tables the Beet, it's root and its leaves have formed an important part of the human diet. Beets have their origin in the wild sea beet Beta vulgaris subspecies maritima a native of the European coast from Norway down to the eastern Mediterranean (Facciola 1998). From their seaside roots beets have been selected into two broad forms:

-Leaf Beets Beta vulgaris Cicla group, known as, Swiss chard, Chard, spinach beet, and probably even more names (Facciola 1998). These "spinaches" were in use long before true spinach arrived in britain.

-Root Beets Beta vulgaris Crassa group, containing Beetroot, sugar beets and a variety of beets called Mangel wurzels which are generally used for stockfeed (Facciola 1998).


A Woman collecting the leaves of beets. The illustrations are from late 14th Century northern Italian manuscripts published in The Medieval Health Handbook: tacuinum sanitatis (NY: George Braziller, 1976).  Image sourced from


Originally use may have been limited to medicinal uses, especially in the case of the root, however by the 3rd Century AD this had apparently changed and beetroot is mentioned as a wholesome food by Apicius (Hedrick 1919).

A recipe from Apicius .

Aliter betas elixas (Beets another way)
Cook the beets with mustard seed and serve them well pickled in a little oil and vinegar.

In Le Managier de Paris  we find Black beets served  with: "Beef pies and rissoles, black beet, lampreys in cold sage soup, a German meat soup, a white sauce of fish, and the coarse meat of beef and mutton."
In addition there are several mentions of white beets and of dishes containing the leaves of beets.:

"BEET SOUPS. There are three kinds of beet-leaf soups according to cooks who speak of them, white, green, and black."

The Archaeological record.

 In the British Archaeological record beet seeds are relatively common and while differentiating root and leaf beets from the seeds is not readily done, the presence of seeds away from the coast immediately indicates that they are cultivates as the wild sea beet is only found naturally on the coast (Greig 1995).

Beta vulgaris sub-species appear frequently in archaeological finds in Britainfrom the 15th to 16th centuries, Alexander Neckham and several other literary sources dating from around the 13th and 14thcenturies also mention beets (Greig 1995).

A slection of sources which mention varieties of Beta Vulgaris.


The Varieties,
Black, red and white Beets are metioned. I would suggest that we can use this as an indicator of these colourations being available as beet leaves, if only by virtue of the leaves from root beets also being edible. I cannot say that other colours were not know but feel that I need to look into this further .
I am having trouble finding references to identifiable varieties (beyond colour) further than the 18th century. So far we have "Early blood turnip beet" known in America in 1774 a close relative of the variety "Bulls blood" which I have seen for sale as seed.


·         Facciola 1998 Cornucopia II: A Source Book of Edible Plants, Kampong Publications ISBN-10: 0962808725

·         Greig J 1995 “Archaeobotanical and historical records compared- a new look at the taphonomy of edible and other useful plants from the 11th to the 18th centuries A.D.” Circaea, the Journal of the Association for Environmental Archaeology 12 (2) pp211-247
·         Oyen, L.P.A., 2004. Beta vulgaris L. [Internet] Record from Protabase. Grubben, G.J.H. & Denton, O.A. (Editors). PROTA (Plant Resources of Tropical Africa / Resources végétales de l’Afrique tropicale), Wageningen, Netherlands. <>. Accessed 8 January 2009.

 ·         Hedrick, U.P. editor. 1919. Sturtevant's Notes on Edible Plants. Report of the New York Agricultural Experiment Station for the Year 1919 II. Albany, J.B Lyon Company, State Printers. [References Available]FOOD RESOURCE

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