Types of Turnips

Botanical Names: Brassica rapa

Ancient turnips (Brassica rapa) are edible plants with a single roundish or conical lower or underground stems, planted by seed in late spring and late summer to grow during the coolest part of the season. The most common varieties have one- to five-inch diameter white roots, sometimes with purplish shoulders where sunlight hits them, and solid, crunchy white or pale yellow flesh.

Some cultures call turnips swedes or Swedish turnips, because they look a lot like larger rutabagas (Brassica napobrassica), a cross between turnips and cabbage thought to have originated in Scandinavia.

Like Brussels sprouts, most turnip varieties contain an acrid-tasting substance (cyanoglucoside) which makes them taste pungent and somewhat bitter until cooked; many people are genetically more sensitive to this substance, making all but the very sweetest varieties unpalatable.

Growing Turnips

Turnips are planted from seed in full sun and moist well-drained soils, and are ready to harvest while small from just five or six weeks after planting, up to two months for fully mature plants. Because they have the best quality and flavor during cool weather, they are planted in late spring and, where seasons are longer, again in late summer for a fall and winter crop. For larger roots, gardeners thin young plants to three to six inches apart, eating the thinned plants.

Types and Varieties of Turnips

Turnips are very closely related to broccoli, cabbage, mustard, and kale. In ancient times turnips were either globular or broad-bottomed, but over the centuries different types of turnips appeared, including ones with long carrot-like shapes, and skins that are pure white to some with purple or red shoulders. Flesh can be white, yellow, golden, or red-veined, and bitter as radishes or smooth and creamy almost like apples.

“Baby turnips” can be simply small turnips harvested early, or specialty varieties which never get very large, can have white, orange, yellow, or red flesh, and are mild and usually eaten raw.  

Here are a few turnip varieties available at local garden centers; online sources offer many more, including heirloom varieties you will never enjoy unless you grow your own.

  • Purple Top White Globe  – the standard spicy white globe with purple shoulders, can get large but sweetest when harvested at just three inches in diameter 
  • Scarlet Queen – hybrid with bright red skin and smooth white flesh
  • Tokyo Cross – very popular all-white hybrid, an All-America Selection winner
  • Market Express – very early producer, pure white roots
  • White Knight – flattened pure white globe, late producer with pure white flesh
  • Alltop – hybrid with vigorous, high-yielding top growth, great greens-only variety
  • Just Right – a hybrid with smooth, mild roots white roots, easy to plant in fall
  • Gilfeather – egg-shaped heirloom with creamy white flesh and nearly smooth leaves
  • Golden Ball – sweet, yellow flesh
  • Seven Top – heirloom grown only for its large, dark green edible leaves
  • Shogoin – very popular tender, mild white root also grown for its greens
  • Topper – fast, heavy yields of greens in just over a month
  • Hakurei – fast producing white root that is the sweetest of all, much loved by chefs