Beets are known by many names: beetroot, red beet, golden beet, garden beet, or blood turnip. Closely related to chard, the leaves are edible but the plant is harvested primarily for its bulb root. In foods, beets are used in salads, as sides or pickled, and the red juice is used in borscht and other dishes.
Beets are thought to have originated as a wild plant in the eastern Mediterranean region. They were eaten by both Greeks and Romans, and eventually found their way to what is now Europe and into China. Early plants were harvested for their leaves, having only small roots. In Germany in the mid-1500s, a variety with a larger, bulbous root was discovered and considered a rarity. It was called the ‘Roman beet.’ Soon after, yellow varieties were found. Today, the German term mangel-wurzel is still commonly used to describe beets. Modern beets range in color from a deep purple to multiple shades of red, to yellow, gold, and white.
References: University of Illinois Extension, Texas AgriLife Extension Service, Texas A&M University.
TYPES, VARIETIES & CUTS
Most varieties of beets are found throughout the United States, Canada, and Mexico, and are available fresh regionally or year-round in most markets from storage. Fresh beets come with the greens still attached.
There are dozens of varieties that fall roughly into three categories: reds, yellow or golds, and whites. Growth is influenced by both variety and climate. More common varieties include Albino (white), Bulls Blood, Candy Cane, Chioggia, Crosby Egyptian, Detroit, Early Wonder, Golden, and Ruby; the hybrid Red Ace is also popular, as well as the award-winning Perfect Detroit and Ruby Queen.
Another variety of the same family, the sugar beet, has high concentrations of sucrose and is primarily cultivated for commercial sugar production, not for consumption.
References: Mississippi State University Extension Service, Utah State Cooperative Extension.
PESTS & DISEASE
Beets are subject to several pests and fungi. Good drainage, weeding, and crop rotation are important for pest and disease mitigation.
Pests include leaf miners (small white maggots that feed on the leaves), which do not impact root yield but can affect the leaves like aphids, which can discolor leaves and transmit viruses. Leafhoppers will drain fluid from leaves causing tip burn and yellow discoloration. Flea beetles feed on seedlings, eating holes in the immature root, while cutworms will destroy young plants and can also feed on mature leaves. Weeding will reduce their presence.
Leaf spot is a fungal disease causing circular spotting on leaves. Plants are more susceptible when wet for long periods, and later in the growing season. Root rot decays and destroys roots, impacting both quality and yield; prevention includes proper soil drainage and crop rotation. Cercospora blight damages foliage of young leaves though not roots. The fungus will remain dormant on infected plants during the winter; proper plowing for decomposition and crop rotation is recommended.
References: Purdue University Cooperative Extension Service, Utah State Cooperative Extension, University of Wisconsin Extension.