“What is life if not laughter and love, caring and compassion, fresh bread and crisp radishes?”
— James Kavanaugh
Radish comes from the Latin word, radix, which means “root”, and is classified as Raphanus sativus. Its genus name, Raphanus, is a Latinized form of the Greek expression raphanos – “easily reared”.
The origins and history of radishes are a bit obscure. It is thought by some they originated in northern China, by others the eastern Mediterranean or near the Caspian Sea. Some believe that radishes were cultivated in Egypt as early as 2700 BC, although the Greeks and again quite possibly the Chinese could have been the first to cultivate them. Even with no consensus on the radish’s origin, it became a staple in many cultures throughout the world, and with the vast variety of types of radishes, each culture had its own “favorites”. Black radishes were favorites in Spain; Europeans seemed to favor the smaller globe radishes – after the “craze” of giant radishes subsided; while Japan and China favored more of the larger daikon types; and in India, they like the rat-tailed varieties grown for their edible seed pods. Along with the diversity in types, there were many different names for the radish: ramoraccio in Italian; armoracia in Greek; fugal in Hebrew; fuil, fidgle or figl in Arabic; and moola in India. So, the simple little well-meaning radish has a not so simple history.
Radishes, as well as garlic and onions, were used by the Ancient Egyptians as ‘wages’ paid to the workers who built the pyramids. In Ancient Greece, the radish was so revered that they made gold replicas of them to be used as an offering to the god Apollo. The Romans also gave the radish a godly quality in reverence to Apollo. Many ancient cultures believed the radish to have aphrodisiac properties. Many cultures also look upon the radish as the ‘queen of health’. Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) especially loves the radish as it is great at stimulating Qi flow – good circulation is key to good health.
“When radishes are in season, doctors should take a break.”
– Ancient Chinese proverb
Radishes were found in 13th century Germany where the fascination with giant radishes continued from the Orient. A German botanist described radishes weighing 100 pounds in 1544. Radishes reached England sometime in the 16th century, and by 1586 the smaller radishes had become popular. It is not exactly clear when radishes made it to North America. They were probably one of the first vegetables brought to the New World, being cultivated in Mexico in 1500. By 1848, there were 8 different varieties listed in the Americas. There may be over 100 different varieties growing around the world today.
As convoluted as the history of the radish is, growing them is much more straightforward and relatively simple…let’s grow some radishes!
Radishes are one of the easiest and fastest growing vegetables you can have in your garden. Kids especially will love growing them as the waiting between sowing seeds and harvest is minimal, as little as three weeks depending on the variety. Due to their inability to hold in the ground very long after they are mature, they lend themselves quite nicely to succession planting every 10 days to three weeks while the weather is relatively cool.
Radishes like loamy, sandy soil rich in organic matter that drains well. Like so many other vegetables, they do not like wet feet, yet they do like consistent moisture. Cracked radishes may be due to inconsistent watering. They like full sun for at least 6 hours a day, with a little shade as the daytime temperatures begin to climb. Radishes do not tolerate transplanting well; it is best to seed them directly into your garden bed. Be sure to thin them to at least 2 inches apart as they do not like to be crowded by each other or by weeds. You can sow radishes as soon as the soil can be worked in the Spring, 4-6 weeks before the last frost, and in the Fall, 4-6 weeks before the first frost. A best practice for growing radishes is to rotate where you grow them from year to year, ideally with three years between areas/beds. This will help eliminate most pest and disease issues. Be sure to use the same 3-year guideline when rotating any of the brassicas which are relatives of radishes. Radishes don’t appreciate growing near turnips, grapes, potatoes, and especially hyssop; these other plants may not like them either.
Harvest radishes as soon as they mature, for common globe varieties that is about 1” in diameter. Check the package for other varieties to know the best harvest size and timing. When left in the ground too long they become woody, and their flavor can become overpowering. They can be kept for at least a couple of weeks in the refrigerator with their leaves cut off, either in a plastic bag or in a glass dish with a tight-fitting lid. The greens of most radishes may be eaten in salads or cooked in soups.
The rat-tail varieties that are grown for their edible seed pods love hot weather and may be an option if your days quickly become hot in the Spring. These varieties seldom have pest issues and do not form typical radish roots. I have personally not grown them, but they are on my list for new seeds next year.
I have grown many varieties of radishes over the years, including:
Holmes’ Royal Red - red globe (Seed Savers Exchange)
Iwai Daikon – small daikon (Annie’s Heirloom Seeds)
Pink Lady Slipper – pink globe (Seed Savers Exchange)
Shunkyo – pink cylindrical (Annie’s Heirloom Seeds)
Purple Plum – large purple
Round Black Spanish
Sora – red globe
I am currently growing the top four listed; the Shunkyo are possibly my favorite and they take a little longer to grow as they are a bigger elongated radish. I never fared well with the Black Spanish, as I now know they prefer to be sown in the Fall and overwintered for a Spring. They really don’t like the heat of our Nevada Spring and Summer. The seed packet didn’t give this information. I always learn something new writing these articles; my hope is that you do too. Happy Gardening!
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