Fodder beet, cousin of the red beet of the kitchen garden

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Its broad and full leaves, erected as a bouquet and slightly shiny under the sun make it very distinct for the inhabitants of Brittany and Haute-Normandie … It is about the fodder beet, this plant whose sweet taste is the delight farm animals. What are its characteristics and what does it have in common with the beet of our vegetable garden?

Fodder beet, intended for animal feed (fodder), is very common in the dairy basins of France. It is noticed in the fields from July, when it offers the wind its bouquets of oval and fleshy leaves. It is the peculiar shape of its stalk (flower stalk), inclined under the weight of the seeds, which has earned it the attribution by the Romans of the name of Beta, in honor of the Greek letter of the same name. But most often, you will not see this famous flowering stalk. Because just like carrots, beetroot is a “biennial” plant: you have to wait two years for it to bloom. Only seed companies and multiplier farmers seed therefore cultivates it to harvest its seeds, and wait two years for it. Breeders sow beetroot in the spring, so that animals graze the plants the following autumn, when roots and leaves are well developed. They can also harvest it, and store it for the flocks during the winter.

Beta is, in fact, a kind of plant (of the family Chenopodiaceae), which scholars of Greek and Roman antiquity had already listed several cultivated forms. The chard (or chard), consumed by the Celts 2000 years before Christ, would be the ancestor of all forms of cultivated beet.

A staple for animals

Fodder beet was given by botanists the full name of Beta vulgaris subsp. maritima . The name “maritima” is explained by the fact that this perennial plant blossoms on the shores of the sea … It has been in France one of the staple foods of livestock for centuries. Indeed, its fleshy and sweet root – white, pink or orange, depending on the variety – has made it a food of choice at all times. It was given to cows, hens, horses, sheep, pigs and rabbits.

In the second half of the twentieth century, beets showed a decline in interest in France, concomitant with the development of corn as a forage crop. “The fodder beet had the defect of presenting several embryos of plants in the same seed. Consequences: it required particular work to farmers and breeders … It was necessary to manually remove surplus plants, to allow the proper development of those left in the ground – We speak of “unmarking”, “ explains Gérard Deroulers, beet and chicory product manager for Florimond Desprez, a company specializing in plant breeding research (also known as “breeding”). The breeders , promoting new crossingsbetween plants of the Beta species, allowed the birth of the monogermous fodder beet. Clearly, the monogerm beet allowed a seed to contain a single plant embryo. The mechanization of the cultivation of this fodder plant then became possible.

A renewed interest

This raised brake, the beet has started a return to favor among farmers and breeders. And that’s great news! “Beet is a fresh food and very rich in energy. It is very appreciated by the animals, fond of its root … It presents in addition to high digestive virtues “, analyzes Gérard Deroulers.

Two other arguments explain the acceleration of renewed interest in this plant: its resistance to climatic hazards and its environmental qualities. Beet has some resistance to climatic stress, because its root allows it to withstand excessive weather. It ensures a relatively stable yield to farmers. Finally, it uses the nitrates present in the soil to develop, thus limiting their runoff into groundwater.

The beautiful red of my garden

Two other beets are well known. Sugar beet, grown for its sugar content. It is close to the fodder beet from a genetic point of view; it is also a plant of the subspeciesmaritima . However, its root is always white. “For the fodder beet, breeders are now seeking to improve its natural resistance to certain diseases, but also to improve its yield. With regard to sugar beet, the aim is to improve the sucrose content of the root. Because this plant is used as a source of sugar or alcohol.

The beetroot of our gardens is characterized by the beautiful red-purplish root. Its leaves are easy to spot: the veins are also red. It is of a subspecies different from the other two: Beta vulgaris subsp. vulgaris. We love it for this little sweet taste, which she shares with her two cousins! It is eaten fresh or cooked. It is also used by industrialists who market it vacuum packed, or who transform it to produce a natural dye. In any case, this red so special, you will not miss it!

Dr. Kimberly Seltzer

Postdoctoral Scholar, UC Berkeley Research Assistant, MIT

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