Turnip greens are the leaves of the turnip plant, Brassica rapa. The turnip is a member of the Brassicaceae family, which also includes broccoli, cabbage, and mustard. Both the root and leaves of the turnip were much favored by the ancient Greeks and Romans, who developed and bred a number of new varieties. It has been cultivated for almost 4,000 years.
The turnip came to North America with the European colonists. During the 18th and 19th centuries, plantation owners would typically reserve the turnip roots for themselves, giving the leaves to their slaves. Many of the slaves were of West African origin and their traditional cooking employed a wide variety of greens, of which turnip greens became a substitute. In modern times, these greens remain an important ingredient in Southern regional cooking. Turnips and their greens are also enjoyed in Europe, although European turnip consumption saw a decrease following widespread acceptance of the imported potato in the 19th century.
Smaller and more tender than other commonly used greens, such as collard or mustard, turnip greens are also milder in flavor. They can be used fairly interchangeably in any recipe that calls for fresh spinach or other greens and can make a tasty addition to casseroles, such as vegetarian lasagna. The greens can be quickly sauteed, either alone or with other vegetables or grains. Stored in a plastic bag in the crisper section of the refrigerator, washed greens will usually remain fresh for three to four days.
Nutritionally, turnip greens are considered an excellent source of nutrients, especially vitamins C, E, B6, and K, as well as minerals, such as copper, calcium, and manganese. The beta-carotene found in turnip greens may be protective against rheumatoid arthritis, since one of its functions is to support the proper function of the immune system. It may also assist the body in maintaining healthy membranes, including the synovial membrane lining the joints.
Vitamins C and E in turnip greens work together to slow free radicals that may exacerbate joint damage. Calcium in the greens can be useful in preventing or slowing bone loss. As a source of copper, these greens may be helpful to people who suffer from rheumatoid arthritis, as copper is necessary for the production of connective tissue that is damaged by the autoimmune condition. Turnip greens also supply dietary fiber, which is helpful not only in regulating elimination but in maintaining colon health as well.