It’s very likely that you have eaten rutabaga without calling it by that name. This is because a few places in the world call both Rutabaga and Turnips by the same name – Turnip – and Atlantic Canada is one of them (along with parts of the UK and New England). However, in seed catalogues, turnips and rutabaga are listed as 2 different (though related) vegetables, so it’s a good idea for gardeners to know the difference.
Rutabaga has an interesting origin story.
It’s a cross between a turnip and a cabbage. The intriguing thing about this cross is that turnips are of the species Brassica rapa and cabbage are a Brassica oleracea – which means they aren’t closely related enough to cross-breed. But somehow they did and cabbage’s 18 chromosomes and turnip’s 20 chromosomes crossed to create rutabaga with its 38 chromosomes. Rutabaga belongs to the species Brassica napus (along with Siberian kale and many varieties of Canola). Scientists’ best guess currently is that the crossing between these 2 unrelated Brassicas took place sometime in the Middle Ages in Scandinavia, where the cool climate suits them.
Besides “turnip,” rutabagas are also known as Swedes, Swedish turnip, or Yellow turnip. The name Rutabaga comes from a Swedish word rotabagge, meaning “root bag.”
Pretty much all of the rutabaga varieties available are open-pollinated, which is quite unusual for a Brassica crop. Though I have heard there are new hybrid varieties coming from Europe, I haven’t seen them available for sale yet.
Differences between Rutabaga and Turnip
Turnips have a shorter growing season. They’re not as cold-hardy or as long-storing as rutabagas. Rutabaga have a little “neck” between the root and the leaves whereas turnips leaves come out directly from the round top of the root.
There are actually many different types of turnips – the traditional ones eaten in this part of the world are those large, round purple-topped white ones (that look pretty similar to rutabaga). However, in many parts of the world (including on our farm), other types of turnip with different shapes and colours are common. Our favourites are the small round white ones that are very tender and sometimes called “salad turnips” or by variety names “Hakurei” or “Tokyo” and long carrot-shaped ones called Hinona Kabu (we often save seeds of these ones because the seed isn’t always available). We grow turnips all season long, planting them every few weeks, for a regular harvest.
Rutabagas are planted just once per season – started in early summer and harvested in fall after frost improves their flavour. The different varieties of rutabaga are much less variable in shape and colour than the various turnips. In fact, most seed catalogues list only 1 or 2 varieties. There are some differences though. There are purple topped ones and greenish-white topped ones. Some are more yellow on the interior while others are creamier-white.
Rutabagas were perhaps my least-loved vegetable growing up, which didn’t change until I tasted some from a farm that I apprenticed at in NY State. This organically-grown, yellow-fleshed rutabaga was prepared as a simple mash and I loved it. This is still one of my favourite ways to eat rutabaga.
It’s also great roasted, pureed with potatoes and carrots, added to soups, stews and casseroles. It can be grated and eaten raw in a salad, pickled, or lacto-fermented. The greens are edible and quite hardy in the garden, surviving many frosts.
We keep rutabaga refrigerated over the winter and eat them until early spring. This long-storing quality is necessary for seed-savers who will re-plant the stored roots in the spring to let this biennial plant grow a flower stalk and then produce seeds.
Our Variety Trial
Unlike true turnips, rutabagas are not something we grow on our farm every year. Since we only market until November, our season to sell these fall veggies is limited. However, earlier this year, when we were asked if we’d be interested in taking part in a national trial of rutabaga varieties, we were excited! I think rutabaga is an excellent crop for food security in our region and it’s valuable to know which variety we like best.
The trial was organized by the Canadian Organic Vegetable Improvement (CANOVI) Network.
CANOVI is a collaboration that includes the Bauta Family Initiative on Canadian Seed Security at SeedChange through whom our farm has taken part in various seed initiatives over the years (seed growing workshops, variety trials, grow-outs of seed for the Atlantic Seed Bank kept at Dalhousie University in Truro, etc).
We were sent 6 different varieties of rutabaga from different seed companies and guidelines for planting them in order to see good trial results. For example, we plant all of the varieties near each other in the field so that variability in soil quality and microclimates is reduced. Also, we plant them so that none of the trial varieties are on the edge of the field, to avoid the “edge effect.”
The qualities we were asked to especially observe included: uniformity of root shape (we don’t want lots of variability within the same variety) and root smoothness (ideally not too many root hairs or side shoots that make the roots harder to clean and less attractive).
We took notes over the course of the season to submit to the administrators to compile and compare with the other growers from across the country.
Varieties we Trialed
Was bred in Quebec in the early 1900s. It’s a popular variety and has a deep purple top and cream-yellow flesh.
A green-topped variety with bright white flesh. It was either developed or discovered by John Gilfeather of Wardsboro, VT in the late 1800s who found it to be very popular with customers so worked hard to prevent anyone else from growing it. It’s now the State Vegetable of Vermont and every October, Wardsboro hosts a festival (this year would’ve been the 18th annual, though it was cancelled) where Gilfeather is featured in every dish. It’s listed on Slow Food’s Ark of Taste. In terms of eating quality, it was our favourite.
This purple-top variety was developed in the Maritimes to be clubroot-resistant. Clubroot causes root galling and deformity. It’s not something that has been an issue on our farm. It tends to be most problematic on moist, acidic soils.
This purple-top one was bred in Alberta and in our trial was most variable in shape and growth rate.
Another purple-topped one, we found it grew a bit slower than the other varieties, though it ultimately rose to the top for the qualities we were looking for in this trial.
A green-topped variety with golden flesh. This variety was brought to North America by the folks from Adaptive Seeds in Oregon who found it in a garden store in Lithuania while on their 2006 Seed Ambassadors Project trip.
Why we Trial
I really enjoy on-farm variety trials because it helps us find varieties that are well-suited to our particular climate, soil type, field management style, and customers’ tastes. It’s also a useful first step for seed-saving (if trialing open-pollinated varieties) so we can start off with a variety that we like best, and then improve it over subsequent generations for our unique circumstances. Even before we took part in national trials we always trialed varieties of a few crops each season for our own knowledge. But, it’s more rewarding knowing that our trial efforts will be used by others as well.
Here are a few Recipes we found:
Gilfeather Turnip Festival Soup
- ¼ lb. butter
- 8 cups unsalted Chicken Stock
- 3 lbs. Gilfeather Turnip, peeled & chopped
- 1 cup half-and-half
- ¼ tsp. nutmeg, ground
- 4 large onions, chopped
- Fresh spinach, washed and de-stemmed
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- Salt and pepper to taste
Melt butter in 5 quart kettle and sauté chopped onion and garlic until soft but not browned. Add stock and chopped turnips and cook until tender. Drain and reserve some of the liquid. Puree mixture in food processor until smooth. Put through a food mill or sieve and return to kettle. Add seasonings and half and half. Mix well. Taste and adjust seasonings, if necessary. Add reserved cooking liquid if soup is too thick. Sauté spinach in a small amount of Olive Oil until just wilted. Use spinach as a garnish on top of the soup before serving or puree and use as a swirl on top of the soup. Or, use the turnip greens instead of spinach. For a Vegetarian Version, use vegetable stock. (Recipe courtesy of Chef Greg Parks, formerly of the Four Columns Inn in Newfane.)
Fluffy Gilfeather Turnip Soufflé
- 2 Tbls. Butter
- 1 Tsp. Pepper
- 1 Tbls. Onion, chopped
- 1 Tbls. Sugar
- 3 Cups Gilfeather Turnip, cooked and mashed
- Pinch of Cayenne Pepper
- 2 Egg Yolks, beaten
- 1 Tsp. Salt
- 2 Egg Whites, stiffly beaten
Preheat oven to 400°F. Melt butter in a large pan. Add onion and sauté until a delicate brown. Add turnips, salt, sugar, pepper, and cayenne pepper. Mix well. Add the beaten egg yolks. Fold in the stiffly beaten egg whites. Put in greased baking dish or soufflé dish. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes or until solid in middle.
Rural Delivery magazine
We wrote this article for the wonderful Atlantic Canadian magazine Rural Delivery. It’s one of our favourite magazines to get in our mailbox and, if you haven’t seen it yet, you’re really missing out!
The subscription is a very good deal. If you’re interested in rural living, check it out!