Winter radishes enchant our plates

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No longer having a radish is a very uncomfortable situation, but not having planned radish for the winter in the kitchen garden is a shame too. Indeed, radishes are vegetables of great dietary value, and very easy to grow. We are not talking here about small radishes every month, with the fine pink and white skin (or red), but black radish that some people mistakenly call “horseradish” and Japanese radish or “daikon”, whose long root white can be confused with a turnip. Like cabbages, turnips, rapeseed, mustard, watercress, rocket, and some 350 to 380 genera and more than 3,200 species, radishes are part of the ancient family of Crucifers that we call today the Brassicaceae.

Vegetables from ancient times

It is likely that black radish was the first species in the Raphanus genus (a genus that includes black or pink radishes) to be grown for food by Egyptians from the Pharaonic era more than 4,500 years ago. Archaeologists have found in the temple of Karnak hieroglyphs representing black radishes under the name of “noon”. The latter, among other things, were part of the food of the workers who built the great pyramids of the Giza plateau near Cairo. But at that time only the seeds were consumed in the form of oil.

The name radish comes from the Latin radix, meaning “root”. The Romans, who cultivated the sea ravenel ( Raphanus raphanistrum subsp landra ), no doubt contributed to the first selections. They associated the radishes with Apollo, the god of the Arts and the Light, and used it to calm the cough and stop the haemorrhages. They are responsible for the spread of black radishes in Western and Northern Europe.

Black radish makes you forget the excesses

Sometimes improperly called “horseradish” – which is, in fact, an entirely different plant: Armoracia rusticana for botanists – black radish or winter radish – can be recognized by its dark, edible but very pungent skin. Its “root” of 20 to 30 cm long, with a tonic flavor, is harvested at the beginning of winter to be consumed in salad, or used as a condiment.

The most popular varieties of consumers are: ‘Long Winter Winter of Paris’, ‘Long Maraîcher’, ‘Long weight of clock’, ‘Round of Winter’ and ‘Purple of Gournay’ (whose skin is pink purplish and less pungent flavor).

The fresh juice of black radish is renowned for its depurative action of the liver and gallbladder. It is good to drink half a glass before a holiday meal and to forget the feast by absorbing the same dose twice a day for a week. 

To fight against the cough, the black radish syrup is prepared by cutting the root into slices arranged in a salad bowl in thin layers, each being covered with powdered sugar. After 24 hours of maceration, simply filter the liquid obtained and take a tablespoon 3 to 4 times a day. Effective, but not famous!  

And daikon, this giant radish from Japan?

Characterized by its long fusiform root with white skin, daikon is one of the basic ingredients of Japanese cuisine. The “roots” that can measure 1 m long and weigh 15 kg have a sweet and refreshing flavor. Very juicy, daikon is often consumed in a hurry. In small gardens, cultivate the varieties  ‘Ilka’ and ‘Okhura’, with round roots, or ‘Omry F1’, whose fast-growing roots do not exceed 15 cm. Note that leaves (tops) can be cooked in soups or used fresh as a condiment.

A culture for beginners

“Growing radishes by shooting on them has never worked well” (Chinese proverb)

To succeed winter radishes, it is enough of a deep ground (well béccher before sowing), slightly limestone, light and cleared of its pebbles (to obtain beautiful roots straight).

Sow the seeds in place from June to August, 2 to 3 cm deep. As the seed is quite fine, mix it with sand for a more even distribution. A good week after emergence – which occurs in 5 to 7 days -, thin out leaving between each seedling the width of 4 fingers (10 cm).

Keep the soil constantly moist without soaking, mulching the soil well. This is the secret of a radish soft and spicy … Because the flavor of radishes is even stronger than they ran out of water!

Between sowing and the first harvest of winter radish, count 80 days; protected by a good cover of dead leaves, the plants can be left in the ground until spring and harvested as and when needed.

Winter radishes are quite greedy plants, do not grow on the same site before 4 years. Follow their culture with salads, then tomatoes and green beans. Never grow cabbages on the same plot before 3 years.

Botanical quarrels and false denominations

If, scientifically, many authors still distinguish black radish from daikon by giving the first the name Raphanus sativus var. niger and the second Raphanus sativus var. longipinnatus (or sometimes R. v. acanthiformis), the international botanical nomenclature has united these two plants under the name Raphanus raphanistrum subsp. sativus, that is, the edible form of wild radish or ravenella. All edible radishes are now considered by official authorities as different races of the same subspecies . Of course, some scientists dispute this position, preferring earlier denominations.

Although it is still in the ”  root vegetable ” category, it is not exactly the radish root that we consume. It is actually the hypocotyl, the stem part located just below the cotyledons (embryonic leaves) and which hypertrophies to form a reserve organ. The root and its rootlets are located at the lower end of this hypocotyl.

Let’s celebrate the radish!

In Mexico, in Oaxaca, December 23 is the occasion to celebrate the radish. This is the Noche de Rábanos (Radish Night). 
April 8, the 19th day of the Germinal month in the French Republican calendar, is officially called radish day.

Dr. Kimberly Seltzer

Postdoctoral Scholar, UC Berkeley Research Assistant, MIT

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