Winter Radishes: From the Sweet To the Sublime!
Winter Radishes: From the Sweet To the Sublime!
Uses: Pickles, fresh eating, stir fries, soups and more
Fun Fact: Chinese fruit radishes such as the Shawo are a traditional part of wintertime tea parties in Beijing.
Winter radishes have an ancient — and spicy — history, and we are thrilled to see that these bulbous root crops are regaining popularity in modern gardens.
Winter Radish: Origin and History
The origin of the domesticated radish species, Raphanus sativus, is a bit of a mystery. While the oldest literary and archeological evidence points to northern China as the birthplace of this flavorful root, the sheer diversity of radish types found in the eastern Mediterranean region leads some scholars to believe that radishes were first cultivated in the area between the Mediterranean and the Caspian Sea.
This likelihood of dual domestication is quite possibly the explanation for the distinct difference between the two categories of cultivated radishes. The smaller, more delicate spring radishes, such as the mildly spicy French Breakfast or the classic round Early Scarlet Globe can historically be traced back to European cultivation, while the winter radish types, like Red Beauty or Pusa Gulabi, are far more commonly found to have Asian lineage.
There is one exception, though: the round, black radish, a winter type that is believed to have originated in the area known today as Syria. This sharply flavored root was first mentioned in Europe around 1548 and the Black Radish was actually one of the most common radishes available at the time.
Seed catalogs of the early 1900s touted the black radish as “a choice variety” for its handsome appearance and spectacular storage qualities. It faded into history as more modern varieties were introduced. Thankfully, however, this special radish, with its hard black skin and spicy, snow-white flesh, has seen a modern revival and renewed popularity with growers.
This usefulness as a storage crop is one of the attributes that sets winter radishes apart from their springtime cousins. When properly put up, a winter radish can keep for months. In mild climates they can even be left in the soil until the hungry gardener is ready to pull them from the earth and enjoy.
Winter Radish Types
Winter radishes take longer to reach maturity, sometimes up to eight to 12 weeks, and are typically much larger in size than their spring counterparts. One of the largest winter radish varieties in cultivation is the Sakurajima, a mammoth white variety from Japan.
Developed in the early 1800s, this finely textured variety is sweet and crisp. Although the average size is around 15 pounds, this radish can reach enormous proportions, with some growers recording radish harvests up to 60 pounds! In its 1921 catalog, the Oriental Seed Company of San Francisco boasted that a single Sakurajima radish could feed a family of five!
Radishes have long been a valuable food source for cultures around the world. They were widely cultivated in Egypt over 4,000 years ago for their roots as well as their edible leaves, and it's believed that radish bulbs were used as currency, along with onions and garlic. Radish seeds have even been discovered inside the ancient Egyptian tombs, highlighting the important role that radishes held within Egyptian culture.
Pink and Green Winter Radish
In China, sweet winter radishes occupy a prized place in the cuisine, historically as fruit substitutes during the long, harsh winters. For example, if properly grown, the bright green Shawo Fruit radish is crisp and sweet with a taste and texture reminiscent of pear. (It sweetens only when exposed to frost.) The Sichuan Red Beauty radish is delicious in salads, soups and stir fries, or eaten raw for a treat! Sweet winter radishes make fabulous pickles, too, and are often preserved by drying.
Japanese daikon radishes such as the Minowase, with its mild flavor and long, tapered white roots, are also culinary superstars. The pale green Japanese Wasabi radish really packs a punch, making a satisfying substitute for wasabi root. It’s easier to grow, too!
Winter radishes have also been held in high regard in the New World since their introduction in the early 1500s. One of the first crops brought overseas from Europe, radishes were valued for their hardy nature and storability, and were essential to the survival of the newly established colonies through the winter months. These radishes were also instrumental as a forage and fodder crop for the multitudes of livestock that quickly followed as Europeans expanded their colonies.
Night of the Radishes Festival
The winter radish is a vegetable that certainly deserves celebrating, and Mexico’s annual “Night of the Radishes” or “La Noche de Rábanos” does just that. A spirited day of feasting, music and dance is highlighted by a radish carving competition, a tradition that dates back to 1897, when Oaxaca City’s mayor, Francisco Vasconcelos, decided to make the contest part of that year’s Christmas market.
The Radishes Festival
On December 23rd, thousands of visitors pour into the streets of downtown Oaxaca to witness this unique and whimsical festival. Professional artists and amateurs alike showcase their talents by carving radishes into a myriad of shapes. Some of the most popular designs include local wildlife, such as snakes or alligators, and radishes carved to look like people or popular architecture.
Some artists capture the spirit of the season and transform their roots into striking displays of the nativity scene. A celebration of local agriculture, the Night of the Radishes pays tribute to this fascinating vegetable and helps showcase the winter radish for it truly is: a work of art.
Are you ready to discover other unique vegetables to plant in your garden? Then explore our shop for a wide selection of vegetable seeds and start cultivating your botanical dreams today!