A Brief History of Radishes - 27 East


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A Brief History of Radishes

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An early variety of radish, probably Cherry Belle. These were planted in early April and got to this harvestable size in about four weeks. Succession plantings can extend your early radish season well into May or early June. ANDREW MESSINGER

An early variety of radish, probably Cherry Belle. These were planted in early April and got to this harvestable size in about four weeks. Succession plantings can extend your early radish season well into May or early June. ANDREW MESSINGER

Just a few of the radish choices at a seed rack. It’s planting time so find the types you like and begin planting with new plantings every five to seven days or less. ANDREW MESSINGER

Just a few of the radish choices at a seed rack. It’s planting time so find the types you like and begin planting with new plantings every five to seven days or less. ANDREW MESSINGER

A radish ready to be harvested. BRENDAN J. O'REILLY

A radish ready to be harvested. BRENDAN J. O'REILLY




Hampton Gardener®

The madness will begin. Adventurous souls have had just one day too many of cabinus feverus and have ventured out to the garden plot, opened a small paper packet and jiggled out a few seeds in a straight row several feet long. In fact, the riskiest of them may have already done this twice.

With no fanfare at all and by simply planting a few seeds, the 2024 gardening season has begun. This, of course, assumes that the snows have stopped, and the ground remains thawed. But what are these seeds that this gardener would dare to plant so early? Why radishes, of course, what else?

Think that radishes are all small, round, red globes that are harvested in just 22 to 30 days? Ah, then you have much to learn. Radishes come in different sizes, shapes as well as colors with some varieties being planted later in the season and taking more than two months to mature with several being in the ground well into the fall months.

And as popular as the radish is in North America, you’ll probably be surprised to find that it’s the most popular vegetable in Japan, where some varieties are allowed to grow to 70 pounds before they’re harvested. And at the Oktoberfest in Munich, Germany, thinly sliced white radishes are served with salt as a nibbler to accompany the famed draft beer. In France, slices of a white-tipped, red radish are served along with crisp, buttered bread as an appetizer.

Historians have long speculated (in heated debate of course) about the precise origin of the radish, but they seem to agree that it is one of the oldest of the cultivated vegetables. It was being grown in China as early as the 7th century B.C. and from there it was introduced to Japan about 1,000 years ago. Egyptian pharaohs had such a high regard for the radish that they made it part of the daily diet for slaves building the pyramids.

When ancient Greeks worshiped the god Apollo in his temple at Delphi, they gave him replicas of grains and vegetables crafted from precious materials. It was said that the radish offerings were fashioned of gold! Roman armies, as they made their way northward, introduced the radish to Britain.

By the 1500s, several varieties of radishes were being grown in England. John Gerard, writing in the 16th century “Herball,” suggests growing types of radishes that are quite similar to ones that we raise today. He describes them as being long or short, straight or round, and in colors of white, red or black. His medicinal knowledge has not survived the test of time, however, as we no longer consider the radish to be a remedy for kidney stones, facial blemishes, or intestinal worms.

Perhaps we are more in agreement with the culinary advice of John Parkinson, an English apothecary of the 17th century. He recommended that onions, lettuces and radishes should be grown together in a kitchen garden of “herbs and roots for sallets,” (salads) advising that radishes “serve as a stimulant before the meat.”

When the first English emigrants crossed the Atlantic to colonize the New World, they knew little of what to expect from the land. They carried with them seed of their more common foods, including, you guessed it, radish, and hoped the crops would find hospitable soil. Certainly, radishes did, because we find the notation “8 oz. radish seed at 12d.” on a seed order list of John Winthrop Jr., the son of the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

Our English word “radish” comes to us virtually unchanged from thousands of years ago. The Romans called this vegetable “radix,” one of the words for “root.”

All radish species belong in the mustard family, which encompasses vegetables as diverse as broccoli and watercress. Depending on the variety, it may be an annual or a biennial. Its tuber-like root is topped by rough, dark green, lyre or strap-shaped leaves. The leaves of some radish plants can grow up to 2 feet long, though these are probably not the ones that you’d want to use as sprouts or greens in your salad.

Radish flowers are seldom seen because most varieties are harvested long before the plant can flower. If the plants were allowed to grow on, attractive white, lilac-veined, or purple flowers would appear and would look very similar to the Salvia flower spike.

What most gardeners don’t realize is the wide variety of radishes that are available in a surprising array of colors, shapes and tastes. Along with the most familiar red, radishes may subtly shade into scarlet, rose or lavender or deepen into purple/black. Several varieties are pure white or a creamy yellow. One kind of radish is a pale green at the top and gradually fades downward to white. The interior colors, though, are not as exciting. Most are white, but some have a pink, green or deep rose-tinted flesh. As for the reddest of reds, an extract from their outer skins are now used to replace the villainous Red Dye No. 2.

Radish shapes might surprise you too. They are generally long or round, but it’s not uncommon to find some that are oval like a top. The round ones can be as small as a marble or as large as a baseball, and depending on the variety there can be little relationship between shape (or size) and the amount of heat that the little wonder can produce in your mouth.

This phenomenon is usually connected to breeding, maturity and how hot the growing season is. Radish flavor can vary from sweet and mild to peppery and quite hot. As a rule, the shorter the maturity, the sweeter the radish. But for the larger, long-rooted varieties you grow particular types to get either mild or pungent results.

For now, get yourself a packet or two of the types that mature early, like 25 to 35 days, and start planting. Don’t plant them all at once with plantings done every four or five days. In this way you’ll get a longer harvest. Add fertilizer before planting either to the soil or to the sides of the planting row and work it into the top two inches of the soil. Use a light application of a balanced fertilizer.

Plant the seeds in a trough only a quarter of an inch deep then cover with soil. Try to space the seeds an inch apart. If your seeding isn’t precise you can come back in a few days and thin the seedlings to at least 1-inch spacing with the picked seedlings saved for the salad or sandwich of the day.

Next week, the three major radish crops, suggested varieties and all the radish culture you never thought you needed. In the meantime, take a look at what’s available. Burpee has more than 15 varieties of radish this year, Gurney’s Seed & Nursery Co. has nine, Territorial Seed has eight and Johnny’s Selected Seed is offering 21.

If you thought radishes were those bagged and leafless things on the supermarket shelf, you’re in for a big surprise. And even better, they’re easy to grow and easy to grow organically. Keep growing.



Again, don’t rush on removing garden mulches. I just watched a dozen robins tilling through the leaf mulch in one perennial garden while they cleaned a 10 square foot area of any sort of bugs that was under the leaves. Nature’s natural cultivators.

Having a problem with Japanese stiltgrass in your lawn? Most preemergent herbicides that you use for crabgrass will control this new invasive weed.

Last chance for dormant oil on roses and fruit trees, but if they’ve leafed out you’re too late. No, it’s not time to fertilize your lawn. Many late-flowering perennials can be divided and moved now. Usually it’s as simple as splitting the crown and moving a piece to another location.

Now is the time to cut back Russian sage (Perovskia) since it blooms on new growth. If growth has already begun just trim the stems to 6 to 8 inches.

When pruning roses be sure to remove anything you prune as well as any foliage on the ground from last year. This can reduce the reintroduction of some diseases.

Great time for planting berries and fruit trees. Too late to order online but check garden centers for potted or bare-root plants. Don’t go for cheap. These are investments that should last for years.

Having groundhog issues? Try sprinkling a repellent around the spaces where they live (foundations, wood piles, under garden sheds) and they may move elsewhere. Repeat as needed.

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