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Reviving the Heirloom Rutabaga

Foliage and top of rutabaga poking out of soil, surrounded by sheet of black garden fabric.

Highland grassy sites in the Appalachian Mountains of West Virginia were popular sites for potato and rutabaga farming in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Rutabagas (Brassica napus) are a cool season root crop in the Brassica family and, in many ways, are a larger version of a turnip. 

Rutabaga comes from rotabagge, the plant’s Swedish name which means “baggy root.” This cross between a cabbage and a turnip is sometimes called a Swedish turnip or swede. In West Virginia, it also has been referred to as a Hanover. 

Many heirloom varieties of rutabaga were grown, including Marian, Navone, American Purple Top Yellow, Nadmorska, Laurentian and Wilhelmsburger. This forgotten root crop is larger and sweeter with orange flesh compared to the mustard-like flavor of the smaller, white-fleshed turnip.  

Rutabagas are typically harder and denser than turnips with shapes ranging from oval, round or triangular, with yellowish to brown skin and cream-orange flesh. Rutabaga leaves are bluish-green, thick and smooth. The roots are often more elongated than turnip roots and have a thick, leafy neck. 

They thrive in cold weather and can be very productive. Quality can be poor when they are grown in hot weather or get too big and pithy. Rutabagas need a longer growing season (90 days) compared to turnips (60 days). Rutabagas are harvested at a softball or larger size compared to turnips, which are about as large as a baseball.  

A moderately deep, highly fertile, well-drained soil with pH 6.2 to 6.8 is best for growing rutabagas. Rutabagas can be planted in rows 14 to 18 inches apart. Work the soil well to form a good seedbed and incorporate fertilizer thoroughly. Plant seeds 1/2 inch deep with about 4 inches between plants. Initial seeding can be closer and then the plants thinned to a 4-inch spacing.

Harvest rutabagas after they have been exposed to several light frosts. This will enhance the sweetness and flavor of the roots. Roots should be 4 to 5 inches in diameter. Trim off the foliage to within 1 inch of the crown.

Rutabagas should be cooked and can replace the potato in nearly every recipe. Preparation methods include roasting, baking or steaming them. Roasting highlights their natural sweetness.  As a bonus, the green tops from rutabagas also are edible.   

By J.J. Barrett, WVU Extension Agent – Wood County