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Oxford Companion to Food

Oxford Companion to Food

By Alan Davidson

Published 2014

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turnip Brassica rapa, one of the earliest cultivated vegetables, is thought to have originated in N. Europe in about 2000 BC from a variety of bird rape, B. rapa ssp campestris. The ‘root’ (not a real root, but the swollen base of the stem) of the wild plant is edible but spindly. Selection over the centuries would have produced larger turnips, of which there were already many varieties in the classical period.

Roman writers, e.g. Columella in AD 42, distinguished between two main types of turnips: ‘napus’, which was relatively slender, pointed, and delicate; and ‘rapa’, which was large and round. Ever since, there has been confusion over how to classify turnips. The current arrangement is to call the common white turnip B. rapa; to assign its relatives the swede and rutabaga to B. napus ssp rapifera; and rape, grown for its oil-bearing seeds, to B. napus. But this is not universally agreed.