Turnip: All You Need To Know About This Hardy Biennial

Turnips, also called white turnips, are root vegetables that come from the plant Brassica rapa subsp. Rapa. The plant is a biennial from the mustard family, Brassicaceae, cultivated as an annual in many temperate regions worldwide. But what is the turnip plant, and what are its characteristics.

If you’re fond of these flavorful taproots, it’s worth knowing more about the plant. Read on, and you’ll find out all about turnips that you weren’t aware of before!

Turnips are hardy biennials, cultivated as a cool-weather annual for their fleshy taproots and soft green tops. Though they’re native to middle and eastern Asia, people grow them throughout the world’s temperate regions. We grow the softer varieties for food, while the harder ones are for livestock.

The roots and leaves have found many different uses over the years. The leaves are usually picked while young and tender ones can be cooked and served like spinach. Young roots can be served fresh in salads or pickled, while the older, woodier ones can be cooked and served in stews.

Common NameTurnip Or White Turnip
Botanical NameBrassica Rapa Subsp. Rapa
Plant TypeBiennial But We Grow It As And Annual
Size (Fully Grown)12 To 18 Inches (30 To 46 cm) Tall, And 6 To 8 Inches (15 To 20 cm) Wide
Sun ExposurePrefers A Full Sun Environment But Tolerates Partial Shade
Soil TypePrefers To Grow In Well-draining Sandy Soil
Soil pHFrom 6.0 To 6.5
Flower ColorYellow
U.S. Hardiness Zones2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, And 9
Native AreaMiddle And Eastern Asia

Different Turnip Varieties

Although you often only see those half purple, half white turnips at the grocery stores, several other varieties exist. The different types vary in the size, color, shape, and flavor of the roots and the greens.

Some are more popular because of their green tops, while others are cultivated because of their roots. Believe it or not, but some varieties are even grown to feed cattle. But to keep a long story short, here are some of the most popular varieties grown in home gardens.

  1. Oasis
  2. Hakurei
  3. Shogoin
  4. Top Star
  5. Komachi
  6. Hidabeni
  7. Gold Ball
  8. Gilfeather
  9. Just Right
  10. White Egg
  11. Nozawana
  12. Seven Top
  13. Red Round
  14. White Lady
  15. Baby Bunch
  16. Tokyo Cross
  17. Orange Jelly
  18. Royal Crown
  19. Hinona Kabu
  20. Scarlet Queen
  21. Sweet Scarlet Ball
  22. Manchester Market
  23. Purple-Top White Globe

History Of Turnips – The Food Of The Poor

Though the vegetable has been around for centuries, unfortunately, turnips haven’t ever gained much respect compared to other vegetables. The vegetable has been a target of scorn for thousands of years.

Wild turnip and similar species, like mustard and radish, have been growing across most of Asia and several parts of Europe for thousands of years. It was initially used for its spicy leaves and flavorful oil that is extracted from the seeds.

Turnips did not secure a good reputation as a food crop for centuries. The Romans hurled turnips at public figures to express their dislike. And during the 15th century, “turnip eater” was a common phrase in the region to describe a rustic person.

Resort To Turnips

Until World War II, when the shortage of potatoes and bread drove the Germans to resort to turnips as the only form of sustenance, turnips were considered the food of cattle, pigs, and the poor. During the war, the British, faced with a food shortage, also turned to turnips to survive.

Even a cookbook named “Turnips Instead Of Potatoes” appeared in the markets for some motivation towards consuming this disliked vegetable, but to no avail.

Important Fodder

Although turnip wasn’t valued as food, it has long since been a vital livestock fodder. The turnip root has been a commonly used forage for at least 600 years. Before the 1700s, farmers used to kill the livestock before winters since storing hay in the wet climate was expensive. Once they found that turnips could grow in cold, damp weather, they stopped killing their animals.

Journey To America And Beyond

European colonists brought turnips to North America. They were well adapted to the South and became a popular plant in the region. Green tops are a popular ingredient of African-American cuisine.

Today, we grow turnip in many temperate areas globally, with China and Uzbekistan collectively producing 50% of the world’s turnips. Among them are Russia, the U.S., and Poland that are also significant producers.

© romas_ph – stock.adobe.com

What Does A Turnip Look Like?

Turnip is a hardy biennial, grown as an annual for its fleshy roots and tender leaves. It usually grows 12 to 18 inches (about 30 to 46 cm) tall and has a spread of 6 to 8 inches (about 15 to 20 cm).

The swollen roots produce upright stems, with 8 to 10 leaves forming a crown over the root’s top. You can harvest the greens once they’re at least 4 inches (approximately 10 cm) tall, while the roots are best while they’re still young and soft, around 2 to 3 inches (about 5 to 7,5 cm) in diameter.


The swollen, globular storage root is the reason for its cultivation and consumption by humans and animals. The bulbous tuber doesn’t have any side roots. The taproot below it is thinner and about 10 inches (approximately 25 cm) in length.

Turnips vary in size, shape, color, and texture according to the variety, but the classic one is half purple towards the top (the part exposed to the sun) and half white (below the ground). The flesh of the plant is white.


The light green leaves that appear on the stems form a rosette over the top of the root. They can reach about 12 to 14 inches (about 30 to 36 cm) in length and have short, rough hair throughout the surface. They’re roughly oval, with toothed or wavy edges. If the plant is allowed to continue another year, a stem appears in the rosette center, bearing smooth, waxy leaves.

The green part of a turnip is called turnip tops, and they are as used for consumption as the roots. The varieties that are grown primarily for the leaves have small or no storage roots. They’re best picked while still young, while you can cook the older leaves to lower the intense flavor.


The central, branched, upright stem, which appears if the plant continues to grow for a second season, bears small yellow flower clusters. They produce smooth, elongated seed pods for the propagation of new plants.

What Are The Best Growing Conditions For Turnips?

Turnips are hardy cool-weather vegetables that can grow in home gardens in both spring and fall. They mature quickly, in just about two months, so you won’t have to wait too long to enjoy the green tops and roots. Here’s a little more information to help you grow bigger, flavorful turnips.

What Is The Optimal Temperature For Growing Turnips?

Turnips grow best in temperatures between 40°F and 75°F (about 4,4 to 24°C). They’re planted 2 to 3 weeks before the last expected spring frost for an early summer harvest and then again in late summer for an autumn harvest. They’ll grow well as long as you avoid hot summer temperatures.


Remember to choose a spot that gets full sun and has loose, well-draining soil. Amend the soil with 2 to 4 inches (approximately 5 to 10 cm) of compost before planting and add some sand to the ground if it’s clayey. Loose soil allows turnip roots to expand with ease.

Water And Fertilizing Needs

Maintain consistent soil moisture, with about 1 inch (approximately 2,5 cm) of watering each week. If the soil is dry, the roots will turn woodier and bitter. As long as the soil is rich in organic matter, no supplemental fertilization is needed since the growing season is very short.

Is It Safe To Eat / Consume Turnips?

Turnip is a healthy vegetable rich in vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and dietary fibers. Since it’s a low-calorie vegetable, even those on a strict diet can consume it regularly. But, here’s some information on whether it’s safe to consume this plant if you have some medical condition.

Pregnant And Breastfeeding Women

Though turnips are rich in nutrients and healthy for pregnant and breastfeeding women, you should only consume them in moderation. Nursing mothers should avoid excess consumption because eating too many turnips can cause digestive problems in infants.


You can introduce turnips to your baby’s diet from 8 to 10 months of age. But, too many turnips can cause gas, bloating, and digestive problems.

People With Allergies

Those who are allergic to cruciferous vegetables, like cabbage, broccoli, etc., may also be allergic to turnips.

People With Diabetes

Turnips are moderately glycemic, with a glycemic index of 62. It’s safe for people with diabetes as long as the plant is consumed in moderation.


Turnips are a healthy treat for your pets, and since the plants are non-toxic, you can grow them in your garden without worrying about risking your pets.

Featured image credit – © magicbones – stock.adobe.com

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