by Master Gardener Linda Rose
My Minnesota cousins consider rutabagas “festive” food and serve them at all of their holiday dinners. Others consider them “famine” food and will not eat them. Because rutabagas are easy to grow and store, they were one of the few foods that consistently were available during wars and other hard times, but people simply had to eat too many of them and may have passed on a negative opinion of them. If you have never tried rutabagas, or think you don’t like them, you may want to give them a second chance. Rutabagas have multiple uses; they are easy to grow and are high in several nutrients.
The rutabaga (Brassica napus or Brassica napobrassica) is a cruciferous vegetable which originated as a cross between a turnip (Brassica rapa) and a wild cabbage (Brassica oleracea). Rutabagas were first cultivated in North America in the early 1800’s. They are most widely grown in Canada, the northern United States and northern Europe. But, they also are an easy cool-weather crop to grow in Sonoma County when you employ good cultural practices.
Rutabagas are biennial plants which can overwinter as storage roots. The root is made up of the hypocotyls, the part between the true root and the first seedling leaves (cotyledons), and the base of the leafy stem. A swollen and ridged neck caused by the leaf-base scars distinguishes a rutabaga from a turnip. The leaves are smooth, thick and bluish in color and form a broad, low-spreading growth habit that tends to inhibit weeds. The flowers are small with pale yellow petals.
Because of their weed suppression abilities, people interested in replacing their lawns with an edible landscape may want to consider planting some rutabagas. They can be seeded into suppressed or dead sod with minimal tilling. Once they are established, the rutabagas will discourage most weeds. Two other advantages to planting rutabagas in sod are fewer insect pests and less soil erosion.
In Sonoma County, plant rutabagas in late summer, preferably in the cooler areas of the county. A good variety to grow here is the ‘American Purple Top.’ The seeds are best sown directly when soil temperature reaches at least 50 degrees F. Sow seeds one-fourth-inch deep in a group of four seeds every six to eight inches in rows 12-18 inches apart. When plants are one-half-inch tall, thin them to one plant every six to eight inches. They need to mature in the cool weather of fall and require 90 to 100 days to reach maturity.
According to the California Master Gardener Handbook, rutabagas should be harvested before freezing conditions occur. When they reach a desirable size (three to six inches), dig up, trim, wash and dry the roots. Then, they may be waxed and stored in cool, humid conditions (dipping them in a warm wax bath is not necessary, but it can prevent moisture loss). The taste improves by storing for at least a short period but they can be stored for up to four months at 32 degrees F.
Rutabagas contain glucosinolate compounds which provide a significant amount of Vitamin C. Other nutritional benefits include low sodium, fat and cholesterol. They are a good source of dietary fiber, thiamin, Vitamin B6, calcium, magnesium and phosphorus, and are a very good source of potassium and manganese. About the only nutritional downside to the rutabaga is that a large portion of its calories are derived from sugars.
There are many ways to prepare rutabagas. They can be baked, boiled, roasted, steamed or fried. Dishes range from the very simple, such as mashed with a little butter and salt and pepper, to the more complex Rutabaga Soup recipes. They are often mixed with other tubers such as potatoes, carrots, turnips, parsnips or even beets, either mashed or cubed and served in soups and stews. Many good recipes can be found on the Internet particularly if you expand your search to include “Swedes” and “Neeps.”