Beta vulgaris L.
* USDA, NRCS. 2006. The PLANTS Database, 6 March 2006 (http://plants.usda.gov).
Data compiled from various sources by Mark W. Skinner. National Plant Data Center, Baton Rouge, LA 70874-4490 USA.
* Species Plantarum 1:222. 1753
The beet (Beta vulgaris) is a plant in the amaranth family. It is best known in its numerous cultivated varieties, the most well known of which is probably the red root vegetable known as the beetroot or garden beet. However, other cultivated varieties include the leaf vegetables chard and spinach beet, as well as the root vegetables sugar beet, which is important in the production of table sugar, and mangelwurzel, which is a fodder crop. Three subspecies are typically recognised. All cultivated varieties fall into the subspecies Beta vulgaris subsp. vulgaris, while Beta vulgaris subsp. maritima, commonly known as the sea beet, is the wild ancestor of these and is found throughout the Mediterranean, the Atlantic coast of Europe, the Near East, and India. A second wild subspecies, Beta vulgaris subsp. adanensis, occurs from Greece to Syria.
The beet has a long history of cultivation stretching back to the second millennium BC. The plant was probably domesticated somewhere along the Mediterranean, whence it was later spread to Babylonia by the 8th century BC and as far east as China by 850 AD. Available evidence, such as that provided by Aristotle and Theophrastus suggests that the leafy varieties of the beet were grown primarily for most of its history, though these lost much of their popularity much later following the introduction of spinach. The beet became highly commercially important in 19th century Europe following the development of the sugar beet in Germany and the discovery that sucrose could be extracted from them, providing an alternative to tropical sugar cane. It remains a widely cultivated commercial crop for producing table sugar.
Beta vulgaris is a herbaceous biennial or rarely perennial plant with leafy stems growing to 1–2 m tall. The leaves are heart-shaped, 5–20 cm long on wild plants (often much larger in cultivated plants). The flowers are produced in dense spikes, each flower very small, 3–5 mm diameter, green or tinged reddish, with five petals; they are wind-pollinated. The fruit is a cluster of hard nutlets.
The taxonomy of the various wild and cultivated races of beets has a long and complicated history. Mansfeld's Encyclopedia of Agricultural and Horticultural Crops following Letschert's 1993 treatment of Beta section Beta recognizes the following taxa: * Beta all cultivated varieties of the beet, which are grown for their taproots, leaves, or swollen midribs.
Spinach beet leaves are eaten as a pot herb. Young leaves of the garden beet are sometimes used similarly. The midribs of Swiss chard are eaten boiled while the whole leaf blades are eaten as spinach beet.
In some parts of Africa, the whole leaf blades are usually prepared with the midribs as one dish.
The leaves and stems of young plants are steamed briefly and eaten as a vegetable; older leaves and stems are stir-fried and have a flavour resembling taro leaves.
The usually deep-red roots of garden beet are eaten boiled either as a cooked vegetable, or cold as a salad after cooking and adding oil and vinegar. A large proportion of the commercial production is processed into boiled and sterilised beets or into pickles. In Eastern Europe beet soup, such as cold borscht, is a popular dish. Yellow-coloured garden beets are grown on a very small scale for home consumption.
Beetroot can be peeled, steamed, and then eaten warm with butter as a delicacy; cooked, pickled, and then eaten cold as a condiment; or peeled, shredded raw, and then eaten as a salad. Pickled beets are a traditional food of the American South. It is also common in Australia and New Zealand for pickled beetroot to be served on a hamburger.
One increasingly popular preparation involves tossing peeled and diced beets with a small amount of oil and seasoning, then roasting in the oven until tender.
A traditional Pennsylvania Dutch dish is Red Beet Eggs. Hard-boiled eggs are refrigerated in the liquid left over from pickling beets and allowed to marinate until the eggs turn a deep pink-red color.
Betanins, obtained from the roots, are used industrially as red food colourants, e.g. to intensify the colour of tomato paste, sauces, desserts, jams and jellies, ice cream, sweets and breakfast cereals.
Beet pulp is fed to horses that are in vigorous training or conditioning and to those that may be allergic to dust from hay.
Beetroot can also be used to make wine. The consumption of beets causes pink urine in some people.
Jews traditionally eat beet on Rosh Hashana (New Year). Its Aramaic name סלקא sounds like the word for "remove" or "depart"; it is eaten with a prayer "that our enemies be removed".
It has been suggested the pigment molecule betanin in the root of red beets may protect against oxidative stress and has been used for this purpose in Europe for centuries, though it is not known if the effect is meaningful in the human body.
All parts of the beet plant contain oxalic acid. Beet greens and Swiss Chard are both considered high Oxalate foods which have been implicated on the formation of kidney stones.
Cultivars with large, brightly coloured leaves are grown for decorative purposes.
Beets are used as a food plant by the larvae of a number of Lepidoptera species.
* "Albina Vereduna", a white variety
"Blood Turnip" was once a common name for beet root cultivars for the garden. Examples include: Bastian's Blood Turnip, Dewing's Early Blood Turnip, Edmand Blood Turnip, and Will's Improved Blood Turnip.
The "earthy" taste of some beetroot cultivars comes from the presence of geosmin. Researchers have not yet answered whether beets produce geosmin themselves, or whether it is produced by symbiotic soil microbes living in the plant. Nevertheless, breeding programs can produce cultivars with low geosmin levels yielding flavours more acceptable to consumers.
Beets are one of the most boron-intensive of modern crops, a dependency possibly introduced as an evolutionary response its pre-industrial ancestor's constant exposure to sea spray; on commercial farms, a 60 tonne per hectare (26.8 ton/acre) harvest requires 600 grams of elemental boron per hectare (8.6 ounces/acre) for growth. A lack of boron causes the meristem and the shoot to languish, eventually leading to heart rot.
The color of red/purple beetroot is due to a variety of betalain pigments, unlike most other red plants, such as red cabbage, which contain anthocyanin pigments. The composition of different betalain pigments can vary, giving breeds of beetroot which are yellow or other colors in addition to the familiar deep red. Some of the betalains in beets are betanin, isobetanin, probetanin, and neobetanin (the red to violet ones are known collectively as betacyanin). Other pigments contained in beet are indicaxanthin and vulgaxanthins (yellow to orange pigments known as betaxanthins). Indicaxanthin has been shown as a powerful protective antioxidant for thalassemia, as well as prevents the breakdown of alpha-tocopherol (Vitamin E).
Betacyanin in beetroot may cause red urine in some people who are unable to break it down. This is called beeturia.
The pigments are contained in cell vacuoles. Beetroot cells are quite unstable and will 'leak' when cut, heated, or when in contact with air or sunlight. This is why red beetroots leave a purple stain. Leaving the skin on when cooking, however, will maintain the integrity of the cells and therefore minimise leakage.
Modern sugar beets date back to mid-18th century Silesia where the king of Prussia subsidised experiments aimed at processes for sugar extraction. In 1747 Andreas Marggraf isolated sugar from beetroots and found them at concentrations of 1.3-1.6%. He also demonstrated that sugar could be extracted from beets that was the same as that produced from sugarcane. His student, Achard, evaluated 23 varieties of mangelwurzel for sugar content and selected a local race from Halberstadt in modern-day Saxony-Anhalt, Germany. A man named Koppy and his son further selected from this race for white, conical tubers. The selection was named 'Weiße Schlesische Zuckerrübe', meaning white Silesian sugar beet, and boasted about a 6% sugar content. This selection is the progenitor of all modern sugar beets.
A royal decree led to the first factory devoted to sugar extraction from beetroots being opened in Kunern, Silesia (now Konary, Poland) in 1801. The Silesian sugar beet was soon introduced to France where Napoleon opened schools specifically for studying the plant. He also ordered that 28,000 hectares (69,200 acres) be devoted to growing the new sugar beet. This was in response to British blockades of cane sugar during the Napoleonic Wars, which ultimately stimulated the rapid growth of a European sugarbeet industry. By 1840 about 5% of the world's sugar was derived from sugar beets, and by 1880 this number had risen more than tenfold to over 50%. The sugar beet was introduced to North America after 1830 with the first commercial production starting in 1879 at a farm in Alvarado, California. The sugar beet was also introduced to Chile via German settlers around 1850.
1. ^ a b c d e f g Hanelt, Peter; Büttner, R.; Mansfeld, Rudolf; Kilian, Ruth (2001), Mansfeld's Encyclopedia of Agricultural and Horticultural Crops, Springer, pp. 235–241, ISBN 3540410171
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