The Diversity of Beets

A Mess of Beets

A Mess of Beets

This year I grew beets.  I cooked beets.  I ate beets.  It was not a great year for tomatoes but it was a terrific year for beets.  In fact carrots, turnips, rutabagas and other root vegetables really performed better than I expected.  Even my robust mustard greens that reseed each year produced massive white roots looking like giant Chinese radishes.   And speaking of Chinese radishes, they did well too. 

My beets were from many sources; some acquisitions were quite old.  Lutz Greenleaf also known as Winter Keeper from two different commercial sources turned out to be two different beets.  The most true to type as I remember from the 1980's when I grew them, were from seeds several years old.  They are sweet and hoof marks around the few plants left in the row indicate that my renegade deer herd are not only grazing at the tops but digging them out of the ground. 

I grew several kinds of golden beets.  The old stand-by, Burpees Golden Beet now has new competition.   I received a Grex of Lutz Green Leaf, Crosby Egyptian and Yellow Intermediate from Alan Kapular, Peace Seed plant breeder and purveyor of seeds a few years ago but never got around to planting it and last year received a yellow selection developed by Alan and marketed by Fedco Seeds.  Alan's yellow beets are real troopers; they do perform well and they are beauties right out of the ground.  Flavor is different, not in a bad way, from other beets perhaps from the mangel heritage but I am hooked on them.

Alan Kapular's Yellow from Grex

Alan Kapular's Yellow from Grex

The last whites I grew were in a little packet of beets collected by Dr. Jack Harlan, who led a USDA seed collecting expedition into Turkey, Syria and Iraq in 1948.  Jack Harlan was a collector who was inspired by Nikolai Vavilov, a Russian seed collector who traveled the world in order to gather seeds from their centers of origin;  seeds that could be used to develop new and better crops as sources of disease resistance and countless other worthwhile traits.  Vavilov established the first government seed bank in the world and as he traveled to find the geographic origin of certain economic crops,  realized that these "centers of origin" were places in the world where the diversity in a species was extraordinary.  These "Vavilo Centers" are clustered mostly near the equator.  Vavilov's exploits were nothing less that Indiana Jones-like as he traveled to distant parts of the world risking his life collecting seed.   Ironically, Jack Harlan was to study in the Soviet Union under Nikolai Vavilov but by the 1940's Vavilov had been sent to a Siberian prison where he died for nothing more than advocating the theory of Darwinian evolution and confronting bad science. 

Jack Harlan's trip where he collected the beets I grew was to one of these centers of origin;  the original breadbasket, where wheat originated and evolved.  He went there to primarily collect wheat for the US government.  The hundreds of kinds of wheat he found there were all different because they had adapted to conditions across a varied landscape.  Isolated valleys, river basins and mountain passes each yielded different landraces.  Farmers in each small village maintained their own seeds with qualities that were unique from neighboring villages.  Jack Harlan's wheat collection over the years have helped protect wheat crops in this country as the genetic source of rust resistance and other diseases.  Those diseases could wreck as much havoc on the food supply of the US as the potato blight did to Ireland in the mid 1800's.  The difference is that unlike Ireland in the 1800's, when a new disease poses a potential problem with the nations economic crops; breeders have a large collection ofstrains gathered from centers of diversity and available through the government national seed bank.  So far,  Harlan's and those strains of wheat gathered by others and also banked have been used successfully to breed in resistance.

Albino

Albino

Fortunately for beet breeders, the Mideast is also a center for the diversity in beets and Jack Harlan also collected some very interesting material for the government which is made available to plant breeders and researchers.  Jack Harlan's beets contributed some of the genetic diversity to the seed crops I grew and marketed in the 1980's.  The 30 or so seeds I received from the USDA seed bank gave me white and yellow beets that I could select from and cross with commercial beets to produce seed crops that I made available in the days of the Long Island Seed Company.

I grew some very tasty reds.  Lutz, of German origin,  has always been a favorite because it grows to huge sizes, stays sweet and tender and it has beautiful green leaves.  Alan's yellow beet inherits many of these same traits from Lutz.   Our beet trials in the 1980's consisted growing all the common commercial kinds at the time and Egyptian was the absolute favorite in taste and texture among my customers at the time.  My sweet beet success this year was the hybrid Merlin with 14° brix.

These pink beets give you some idea of what happens when stray pollen from red beets affect a seed crop of Blankoma white beet.  You might be dismayed by the errant crossing but such beets inspire me as much as Harlan's collection of landraces from the center of beet origin with the potential of this crop and I ponder what kind of crosses I will do with the beets from this falls harvest.  Perhaps I shouldn't cross the beets but instead isolate a population of Lutz to generate a seed crop and work on reselecting a favorite.  Maybe I should grow an F2 of Merlin to see what I will get;  perhaps that could lead to a nice open pollinated selection.  I will leave some of each beet in the ground with mulch to cover the exposed part of the root and also store some under root cellar conditions just above freezing until springtime since beets do not always make it through a Long Island winter in ground.