Beta vulgaris – beta is the name ancient Romans gave to the beet, while vulgaris means common.
Wild beets are native to northern Africa and the coast of Spain and Portugal. They were introduced to northern Europe by the Romans who fed them to both their troops and horses. Beets adapted very well to cold, northern winters and from them sugar beet and the round red beet were developed. Collections of the wild relatives of beetroot are being made in Sicily and Calabria for large-scale gene banks.
Beetroot is a biennial. It is not very hardy in prolonged and harsh winters, but will take some below-zero temperatures. It is sown in winter in warm climates, in late summer in cool climates and it is salt-tolerant by nature. For seed production, an application of common salt at 30 grams to the square metre is beneficial.
Saving The Seed
The roots attain full size during their first year of growth and in the second year, send up an angular stalk. The plant then dies off, this is typical of the biennial. However, in places where the difference of day length is not marked, such as far-northern Australia, it may not go to seed at all. In cold climates, the roots are lifted for evaluation at the beginning of winter, stored in moist sand, then reselected for replanting in spring according to true-to-typeness, appropriate size and colour uniformity. They will go to seed in summer. To preserve the diversity of the strain, a good dozen (or at the very least six) plants should flower together, especially if the variety is rustic and shows a lot of character.
To encourage larger seed balls on the lower parts of the branches, the top and side branches should be tipped. Seeds can be picked individually as they ripen, or the whole stalk cut down and hung to dry further. Each seed ball contains between two and six individual seeds and, as they are hard to separate, you’ll end up with small groups of seedlings. Beetroot is pollinated by both insects and wind.
Storing The Seed
Seeds keep for four to six years. This is uncommon longevity for a vegetable seed and there is usually less than 50 percent germination at that stage. There are 50 seeds to the gram.
Beetroot is roasted, grated raw and dressed or steamed, sliced and covered in vinegar and a small amount of sugar – the old Aussie way. The leaves are edible and make a nutritious spinach. The root is not recommended for diabetics because of its high sugar content.
On The Lookout
Ask Middle Eastern folk for red varieties and look for the yellow varieties in German settlements such as the Barossa Valley, Murray Flats and York Peninsula in South Australia, and the Mallee and Geelong regions in Victoria. Bull’s Blood, an ancient variety is grown for its reddish, purple leaf. Early Wonder is an old, flat type that is suited to early planting. Detroit Dark Red is often used as a main crop for the mid-season. In New Zealand, Crimson Globe, Rapid Red, Dewar’s Dwarf and Early Flat Egyptian, which were distributed until the mid-1930s, may still be grown in some gardens on the North Island.
The long and half-long types are often good quality, but their hairy appearance and lack of uniformity made them less popular in the past, so many tasty strains have unfortunately disappeared.