Very few vegetables elicit less excitement from the average gardener than beet. No one boasts about having fresh beets from the garden by the fourth of July, or the magnitude of the beet crop this year. In short, beet suffers from an image problem. Once relegated to pickling or making borsht, beet's newfound health claims are causing American's to view it with a greater deal of respect, even if they most still do not like its taste.
Garden beet (Beta vulgaris) is a member of the Amaranthaceae family, subfamily Betoideae. It is thought to have originated from a wild species known as sea beet (Beta maritima) which is native to coastal regions of the Mediterranean Sea. Its common name is derived from the Old English bête which, in turn, was thought to be derived from the Latin beta.
Beets have been consumed by humans for over 5000 years. The first beets produced long, thin roots. Therefore, it most likely was the leaves of beets that were harvested and used as a pot herb. This tradition continued for centuries until the Romans began using the roots for their medicinal value, primarily to relieve fevers and cure constipation.
It was not until the second or third century A.D. that cooking and eating the beetroots was described in the literature. Presumably this referred to a fleshy root and not the long, fibrous root described above.
Fast-forward to 14th century Europe, where history suggests beetroot was first consumed in England. At that time, beet had roots shaped more like a carrot or parsnip, opposed to the sphere-like root of today's modern beet. The latter probably first appeared in 16th or 17th century Europe, but still needed several hundred years before it became a popular food source.
Beet was introduced to the United States by early colonists. History records that George Washington grew beets at Mount Vernon and Tomas Jefferson planted them at Monticello. By the 19th century, seed catalogs featured four different variety of beets. Today Burpee Seed catalog lists 17 different varieties available in colors including red, yellow, white and concentric or "candy striped".
During the eighteenth century, a German scientist discovered that beets contain sugar indistinguishable from that produced by sugar cane. The discovered was significant, since few "commoners" in Europe at that time could afford sugar from tropical sugar cane. Subsequent work to improve the sucrose content of beet led to the establishment of the sugarbeet industry. First grown in the U.S. in 1890, today sugarbeets account for a bit over 50 percent of the eight million metric tons of sugar produced annually in our country.
The earthy taste of beets which causes people to either love them or loathe them is due to a compound called geosmin. The human nose is very sensitive to geosmin and is able to detect it as the astonishingly low concentration of only five parts per trillion. Interestingly, geosmin is the same compound that causes certain fish such as carp to have an earthy or "muddy" flavor.
Beets have long enjoyed notoriety as a health food. It is now known this is because of phytonutrients they contain called betalains. The latter are plant pigments that have anti-oxidant, anti-inflammatory and general detoxification properties in humans. Unfortunately, the betalain content of beets undergoes steady decline as cooking time increases.
More recent is the discovery of the healthful effects of dietary nitrates (NO3) contained by beets. In the human body, dietary nitrates ultimately are converted to nitric oxide (NO) which relaxes and dilates blood vessels. The result is a significant decrease is systolic blood pressure that can be achieved by drinking beetroot juice.
Whether it is grown for it vitamin-rich leaves or "earthy-tasting" storage root, beet is a home garden vegetable that is fairly easy to grow. It is a cool-season crop that prefers full sun and well-drained soil. Beets tolerate average-to-low fertility quite well. In fact, too much nitrogen will encourage top growth at the expense of root development.
Beets are frost-tolerant and should be planted early in spring so their primary growth occurs during cooler weather. After establishing a good seed bed, plant beet seeds ¾ inch deep and one inch apart in rows separated by 12 to 18 inches. Each beet "seed" actually is an entire ripened ovary that contains several seeds, so they should be thinned after they emerge from the soil to reduce competition.
Botanically, beet is a biennial. It produces an enlarged storage root during its first season of growth, and flowers and sets seeds during it second. If beets experience long durations (e.g., three weeks) of temperatures less than 45 degrees F., a flower stalk may develop the first year. If this happens the flower stalk should be removed.
Beets can be harvested as soon as they are large enough to eat which is when they reach an inch or more in diameter. Since the best flavor and root color develop under conditions of bright light along with cooler temperatures, "new" beets usually are more flavorful than those allowed to grow to full maturity. Beets that mature during warm weather have less sugar and poorer color.
Beet greens can be harvested sparingly during the growing season and consumed fresh or cooked. Remove only a few older, fully-matured leaves from each plant to allow the remaining leaves to continue to manufacture food and enlarge the beetroot.
Like most root crops, beets store well. Remove the tops and only store roots free of diseases or mechanical injury. At temperatures just above freezing and relative humidity in the range of 95 to 100 percent, beets can be stored for up to six months.
One cup of sliced, cooked beets contains only 75 calories. Beets are high in dietary fiber and are an excellent source of folate along with vitamins A and K. Additionally they contain significant amounts of manganese, copper, and potassium.
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REVISED: February 21, 2017