First Beets Yielded Only Greens
Swiss chard, garden beets, stock beets, or mangel-wurzels, and sugar beets all belong to the same species (Beta vulgaris) and will intercross readily. The pollen is wind-borne and may fertilize the pistillate flowers of any plant of the same species over long distances.
Seed crops of garden beets, for example, must not be grown within several miles of a sugar-beet seed crop lest the two kinds become cross-pollinated, a condition ruining the purity of the seed of one or both kinds.
The species is a biennial that grows best in a cool climate.
Ancients Ate Just the Leaves
Chard, as Americans use the term, applies specifically to the leaf beet (Beta vulgaris variety cicla), or beet that develops no enlarged, fleshy root. We use the term as a synonym of Swiss chard; "chard," however, also may refer to the succulent blanched petioles of the leaves of the globe artichoke and cardoon. The Romans called this plant beta, the Arabs selg, and the Portuguese selga-apparently an adaptation of the Arabic name.
The wild beet occurs widely over the Mediterranean lands, Asia Minor, the Caucasus, and the Near East. It is believed to have originated in the Mediterranean area, spreading eastward in prehistoric times, with a secondary region of development in the Near East.
The leaves of the various kinds of beets in ancient times were harvested from the wild for use as a potherb. Although our modern varieties of chard show improvements in compactness of growth, in size, and in eating quality over the ancient forms, the several types of chard grown today have been known for hundreds, some for thousands, of years.
In the 4th century B.C., Aristotle wrote of red chard, and Theophrastus mentioned light-green and dark-green kinds. The Romans as well as the Greeks knew chard well and wrote frequently of its use. It was apparently unknown in the Far East until the Middle Ages, being mentioned in China only from the 7th century. The lack of a Sanskrit name for chard suggests that it was spread from west to east after truly ancient times.
Chard has been used in Europe for as long as there are definite records of food plants there. In the 13th century a German writer used the name acelga (selga is still used in Spain and Portugal), indicating that it was well established in the Iberian Peninsula. In the 16th century a Swiss botanist described a yellow form, the latest to be recorded, completing the list of types now known. Thus, although the red and yellow chards are little grown today in America, they are not new.
Beets of the types that produce large, fleshy, edible roots were unknown before the Christian Era. The ancients used the root of the wild beet or chard apparently for medicinal purposes only.
In the 2nd and 3rd centuries the Roman epicures first gave recipes for cooking the root of Beta vulgaris, some claiming it was better food than cabbage. This must have referred to a fleshy root, not the hard, fibrous root of chard, although the roots in question were probably selected from wild plants.
The next known record about beet root was among some 14th-century English recipes, revealing its use in England.
The red beet with a turniplike root was first described as a food plant in Germany in 1558 and was a rarity at that time in northern Europe. The improved beet was called "Roman beet" in the 16th century in northern Europe and France, indicating its introduction from Italy.
All through the 17th and 18th centuries very few kinds of garden beets were known and they remained unimportant. Up to about 1800 only two kinds, Red and Long Red, were listed by English seedsmen. Popularity on the Continent grew faster than in the British Isles.
In the United States in 1806 only one variety-Red-was listed in a leading catalogue, but in 1828 four kinds were listed. The Bassano variety, still grown today, was common in Italy more than a hundred years ago. The Flat Egyptian, an American production, also cultivated today, was first grown around Boston about 1869. Other varieties grown in America are of more recent introduction.
Colors of garden-beet varieties may range all the way from extremely dark purplish red to bright vermilion and to white. The roots of some varieties, when cut transversely, show distinct light and dark rings, even white alternating with red or purple, like a target.
Beets Take Kindly to Dehydration
Beets are not only commonly grown in home gardens because of their easy culture and quick productiveness, but tens of thousands of acres are grown annually in this country for canning.
During World War II it was found that among all the vegetables dehydrated for military or civilian use, beets were one of the most satisfactory.