Beetroot - Beta vulgaris
Brief Botanical History
It is thought that the beetroot evolved from wild sea beet (Beta vulgaris sub species maritima). Wild sea beet grows all over the coastlines of Europe and Western Asia and has rather small unappetising roots. The plant was sometimes used as a food but this would have mainly been the leaves and stems rather than the root. However references in around 300 BC claim the Greek cultivation of the plant where varieties of beet plants with edible roots were grown. It is difficult to accurately date the beetroot as unlike seeds and grains, roots and leaves rot away leaving no trace for archaeologists to study.
It does seem that the beetroot as we know it today is a relatively modern invention. Beetroots remained long and thin until medieval times and one of the earliest records of a swollen root was in the mid fifteen hundreds. Even then the red beetroot did not surface until the 17th Century.
It is a popular misconception that the colour of beetroot is due to a pigment known as anthocyanin, the pigment in red cabbage. It is in fact due to the purple pigment betacyanin and a yellow one betaxanthin known collectively as betalins. There are other breeds of beetroot that are not the usual deep red, such as Burpee's Golden' with an orange red skin and yellow flesh and Albina Vereduna which is white. These have a greater or lesser distribution of the two betalin pigments.
The pigments are contained in cell vacuoles (holes). Beetroot cells are quite unstable and will ‘leak’ when cut, heated and when they come into contact with air or sunlight. This is why you will inevitably get a purple stain on your plate when eating beetroot. If the skin is left on when cooking however this will maintain the integrity of the cells and therefore minimise leakage.
The pigment stabilises in acid conditions, which is a good reason why beetroot is often pickled.
I have found beetroot one of the easiest things I have grown. Like many others this is another plant that we are told to sow after the risk of the last frost has gone. However, it can also be grown in a window box all year round. Simply bring your window box inside when there is a chance of frost. I would suggest buying a smaller variety of beetroot if you plan to grow them in a container Baby beetroot pronto is a good one to try. If you are growing outside then for the first time, I would suggest getting a 'boltardy' variety simply because they are easier to grow.
It is often suggested that the 'seeds' should be sown thinly, I disagree and sow the seeds close together. This is not just because of my rebellious nature, but down to my taste. I enjoy eating beetroot leaves in salads and the young shoots are deliciously sweet. They can be constantly thinned, as you need them, throughout the growing period. I do, however, sow them in rows about 38cm (15inches) apart.
I have written 'seeds' in inverted commas as each seed is in fact a seed pod containing many seeds.
Beetroot will grow in most soil conditions, for example they have worked on my clay soil and in my compost filled window box. However, ideally the ph level should be between 6.5 - 7.5.
Beetroot will appreciate watering in dry weather and ideally need to be in weed free soil. I have not kept my allotment weed free and they have all come up well, although some have struggled slightly against the cooch grass. Birds, slugs, snails and woodlouse have all had nibbles at my beetroot. I have put in a pond to get rid of the slugs and netting can be used to protect the young shoots against birds.
All varieties should take between 56-126 days to grow. If you like your beetroot sweeter then it is worth pulling out some immature plants.
As too much wet and frost can damage your beetroot it is worth lifting them before the bad weather starts and storing them in a clamp.
I have left some of my beetroot in the ground to let them go to seed, to get the best seed they should be left for two years, however, if you are lucky then they might bolt and you will get seed earlier. This seed will not be as good as what you will get after two years.
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