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Heirlooms: Root Vegetables

Root vegetables are a diverse category of tasty plants. Many produce delicious, edible roots, but also greens that are nutritious and tasty. If your kids resist eating many of these, especially turnips, beets, and radishes, try growing heirloom varieties. They will be enthralled with the fun colors and shapes, like beets that are striped like candy canes, purple radishes, and yellow carrots. In addition to the appealing appearances, these heirloom roots taste much better than their grocery store counterparts. You can make excellent mashed parsnips, roasted turnips, and raw radishes with dip.

Heirloom varieties of vegetables are a great source of food and nutrition for your family. When you choose to grow heirlooms, you are supporting an important diversity of foods. Big agriculture grows only a few varieties of each type of plant because it is cheaper to do so. With that practice, however, we lose very important plants that are resistant to pests and diseases that threaten to bring down major crops. Support the healthy diversity of plants by choosing some of the heirlooms below.


Beets are delicious with their naturally rich and sweet flavor. Although most supermarkets only sell the traditional, deep red roots, heirloom varieties come in many different colors and shapes. Beets are low in calories and high in fiber. They have magnesium, vitamin C, iron, zinc, manganese, and potassium. And you can eat the greens too. They contain iron, vitamin C, vitamin K, calcium, and beta-carotene.

  •  Boltardy. This is a Dutch variety of beets that produces plenty of roots. They are deep red and have no rings on the interior. The plants are also slow to bolt, so if you live somewhere warm, this is a good choice.
  • Bull’s Blood. Ignore the unsavory name of this beet. The rich, red roots on this plant are especially sweet and tasty. They can be eaten fresh or canned. The leaves are a reddish purple color and are excellent when eaten as baby greens.
  • Chioggia. Dating back to 1840, this Italian variety is a perennial favorite. The roots of the Chiogga have red and white concentric rings, reminiscent of a candy cane. The roots are tasty and the tops can be eaten either cooked or raw.
  • Detroit dark red. The Detroit beet originated in the 1890s and is the most popular beet grown in the country to this day. It produces, large, dark red, globe-shaped roots that taste wonderful fresh or canned.
  • Golden Detroit. This unique beet plant produces yellow-orange roots that are beautiful and tasty. This is a good choice if you find the red juice of a typical beet to be problematic. The roots are sweetest when picked young. The greens are excellent when cooked.
  • White Detroit. Rounding out the Detroit trio, this beet variety produces large, white roots that are mild, tender, and sweet. The sweetness holds up well to cooking and does not dissipate. Another good choice for avoiding the staining caused by red beets.


Everyone loves carrots. They taste wonderful when eaten raw, but can also be cooked with other roots and add a nice touch of sweetness to dishes. Carrots have plentiful beta-carotene and vitamin A which promote eye health. Like beets, when you choose heirloom varieties, you will be surprised by the range of colors, shapes, and flavors you find.

  • Amarillo. A yellow carrot, the Amarillo is a good choice for dry conditions. It can tolerate lack of water better than other varieties. It also has a strong, sweet, and distinctive flavor. The tops are strong and the roots have large shoulders.
  • Autumn King. This carrot produces stumpy roots, growing only about six inches long. The orange carrot, however, has a delicious flavor and stands up very well to storage. It will stay crisp much longer than other types. You can sow it in late summer, harvest in the fall, and store for eating throughout the winter.
  • Bambino. If your kids are entranced by the baby carrots, ready to eat from the grocery store, you can make your own with the bambino variety. They roots are cylindrical and short with a thin core. Harvest them when they are only four inches long for the best flavor and texture. These carrots are also good for pickling and canning.
  • Chantenay Royal. A favorite since it was introduced in the 1950s, this carrot has a striking red-orange color. The roots are stump-like and are produced by the plant in abundance. They even grow well and plentiful in poor soil.
  • Little finger. Another variety that makes tasty little baby carrots, little finger is a French variety with a superior flavor. The roots only grow to between three and five inches and a have a beautiful deep orange color. They can grow very close together, so if you have limited space, this is a good choice. The roots are best eaten fresh.
  •  Tendersweet. The tendersweet plants will give you a uniform harvest of red-orange roots that are eight to ten inches long. They are very sweet and have a very small core. The texture is fine-grained and the roots are crisp. They stand up well to freezing.


Although they resemble carrots, parsnip roots are not to be eaten raw. They are, however, excellent and sweet when roasted, boiled and mashed, or fried. Parsnips are high in fiber, folic acid, vitamin C, and vitamin K, and low in fat. Parsnip roots make an unexpected, yet tasty addition to roasts and can be easily stored and eaten all winter.

  • All American. This variety produces ten to twelve inch roots that taper to a point. They are very sweet and produce very minimal side roots and fibers. These parsnips can be stored successfully in the ground or in a storage cellar.
  • Hollow Crown. This variety has been popular since it was introduced in the 1850s. The roots are long, smooth, sweet, and fine-grained. They grow up to 15 inches long and are free of side shoots. The plants produce abundantly as long as the soil is rich and well-prepared. They will store well throughout the winter.


Every gardener should have a section devoted to radishes. These spicy and delicious root vegetables are healthful, tasty, versatile, and easy to grow. Radish roots can be eaten raw or cooked and the greens can also be eaten. Radishes are high in vitamin C and fiber and low in calories. Radish roots also contain compounds called isothiocyanates, which have been indicated in research to destroy cancer cells. And, they come in a fun variety of shapes, sizes, and colors.

  • Black Spanish. This black-skinned, white-fleshed radish dates all the way back to 1824. The roots are globe-shaped and grow to three or four inches in diameter. They store very well over the winter.
  • Cherry belle. These small, red radishes mature in a mere 20 days and produce roots prolifically. The crisp, white flesh is tasty and spicy. You can sow cherry belles throughout the growing season for a constant harvest of roots.
  • Easter egg. Your children will love this variety of radish. The roots are produced with several different colors including pink, purple, white, and red. They resemble colorful eater eggs and have a crisp white flesh that makes them taste as good as they look.
  • Pink summercicle. This variety matures in just 27 days and has a cylindrical root. The interior is crunchy with a mild flavor. The skin is pink.
  • Plum purple. Another unusual variety is the plum purple. The skin is bright purple and the interior is white, crisp, and mild in flavor. The roots do not become pithy in warm weather.
  • Watermelon. The name of this variety indicates its bright pink interior. The skin is white and the pink flesh is sweet and crisp. They have nice tall greens that make it easy to harvest the roots. Pick when the roots are still young for the best flavor.


Turnips are a classic root vegetable. Their flavor is rich and slightly bitter. They are good for roasting, stews, and mashing and are very healthful. Turnips are high in vitamin C, B vitamins, calcium, potassium, and fiber, and low in calories. The greens can also be eaten and are rich in vitamins A, C, K, folic acid, and calcium.

  • Golden ball. This very old variety produces round, golden roots with a mild flavor. They are less bitter than other types and are perfect for boiling and mashing.
  •  Purple top white globe. As the name indicates, the roots of this turnip are purple and white and have a white flesh. They are slightly sweet and are wonderful when roasted.
  • White egg. The white egg turnip will give you egg-shaped roots, in only 42 days. The flesh of the roots is fine-grained, sweet, and tender. This is a favorite variety of many turnip lovers.


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