Growing Great Rutabaga!

By Health Coach Deborah Cox FMCHC, NBHWC



The Rutabaga, Brassica napobrassica or napus, often called Swede, does not have an extremely long history, yet researching it and reading others’ perspectives on it was both interesting and gave me a few chuckles.  The most common belief is that the Rutabaga originated sometime in the 17th century when as one source put it: “the wild cabbage (Brassica oleracea) and the turnip (Brassica rapa) got jiggy somewhere in Bohemia.”  Others attribute the creation of the rutabaga to Swiss botanist Gaspard Bauhin, and still others think that due to the extreme cold hardiness of the plants the cross could have occurred as far back as the Middle Ages (5th century to approximately the 14th century).  Rutabagas were popular in the northern areas of Europe where they were relatively easy to grow in the colder climates.  One of the earliest uses for this relatively simple vegetable was as feed for young cattle and other livestock; some also think that we should have just left it as a livestock feed.

European colonists brought turnips to the New World around 1610 and rutabagas soon after.  Originally the Rutabaga was thought of as just another variety of turnip, I’m not sure when Rutabagas made the split from being a variety of turnip, quite possibly late in the 1800’s.  In the early 1900’s the fleshy roots were valued as livestock feed in the USA, but this practice of feeding brassica crops to livestock fell out of practice as growing them was quite labor intensive, three times what was needed to produce corn silage.  In the 1970’s it was found that the tops of Rutabagas and other brassicas are a high-quality forage that can be grazed in the late summer, fall, and well into November in some areas when other forages have played out.

Much like other cold hardy, easy to grow vegetables the rutabaga became popular in times of food scarcity, such as during WWII.  In Europe, the Rutabaga was the only nutrition POW’s and residents of many ghettos had access to. This fact did not do much for the popularity of the vegetable post-wartime.  In the US, as seeds for more popular vegetables became scarce, rutabagas found their way into home Victory Gardens along with other “strange” vegetables such as kohlrabi and parsnips.  In 1943 “the so-called Sunday Farmers tending 20 million plots and harvesting fully one-third of the fresh vegetables consumed in the United States”, raised the morale of civilians on the home front.  One of the greatest and most underreported things to come out of these Victory Gardens was the improved diet of the American people during this time.

Interesting Rutabaga Tidbits

  • The name Rutabaga comes from the Swedish word “rotabagge” or “baggy root”.
  • In Scotland they are known as Neeps
  • The introduction of the potato in Ireland replaced much of the rutabaga (turnip) production. One possibility for this switch to potatoes, a source thought plausible, was due to the ease of distilling poteen, a potent whiskey/liquor, from potatoes. This source also claimed efforts to distill rutabaga proved disappointing.
  • The first “jack o’ lanterns” were carved rutabagas (turnips) carried by rowdy bands of children known as “guisers” wearing hideous masks, celebrating the Celtic festival of Samhain on the last night of October.
  • The International Rutabaga Curling Championship is held in Ithaca, NY, on the final day of the Ithaca Farmers Market. Yes, it is a real thing! Read more here.
  • Cumberland, Wisconsin, has an annual Rutabaga Festival.
  • Some people may be more sensitive to bitter flavors of rutabagas and turnips due to certain genes they possess, similar to the reason why people either love or can’t stand cilantro.

Let’s Grow Rutabagas

Rutabagas are hardy, cool-weather vegetables that are relatively easy to grow.  In most areas they will do best when planted in the summer to early fall depending on the severity of the winters.  They do not do well in the hottest summer months. Consistent temperatures above 75-80 F may cause bolting, yet they do like full sun. If planted for fall/winter harvest, it is a good idea to give them 9 to 12 weeks of growth before the first frost of the fall.

Rutabagas do not like high nitrogen in the soil, which can lead to poor bulb formation.  So, use about half your usual amount of compost when working the area where you are going to plant them.  They also like well-drained soil.  Be sure to thin them to about 6-8 inches apart to give them room for best bulb formation.  You can trim the outer leaves to enhance their growth.  The leaves of the Rutabaga can be prepared and eaten like other leafy greens.

Keep an eye out for aphids and flea beetles and remove any leaves that become infested.

You can begin harvesting when the roots are about 2-3 inches in diameter, but if left until they are 4-5 inches they will be milder, and even sweeter when left in the ground through a few frosts.  Their flavor is actually a little milder than turnips.  Rutabagas will store well in the ground if the ground temperature stays above 24F; mulching may help extend their ground storage.  They will also store well in your refrigerator’s veggie drawer for up to 4 months.

After harvesting, please try your hand at this roasted maple rutabaga recipe!


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