What is a Turnip?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A turnip is an edible tuber, formally known as Brassica rapa, and widely cultivated all over the world for food. The whitish to yellow roots are edible and store well, and the greens can be eaten like spinach or grazed as a cover crop by farm animals. In addition to being readily available in many grocers, turnips are also very easy to grow, as they are frost and drought tolerant. Historically, the turnip has served as a vital food source in northern nations because they keep well over the winter, providing a valuable form of vegetable nutrition.

Turnip greens can be boiled and used in soups.
Turnip greens can be boiled and used in soups.

The spicy flavor of a fresh young turnip and turnip greens is a result of the fact that turnips are in the mustard family. The origins of the turnip appear to lie in Asia, although it was brought West many centuries ago. Turnips were cultivated in Ancient Greece and Rome, and spread to Northern Europe as well. Because the climate of Northern Europe is much harsher, turnips became a popular crop, thanks to their durability.

Turnips are edible and cultivated all over the world.
Turnips are edible and cultivated all over the world.

The turnip is boiled, fried, roasted, mashed, and sometimes eaten raw, depending on personal taste. Young turnips are more juicy and flavorful, and are preferred if consumers can obtain them. As turnips grow older and larger, they become woody. This will also happen after a long period of storage. Like other root vegetables, turnips keep very well in a cool, dark root cellar, although they can also be stored under refrigeration for a shorter period of time, usually around two weeks.

In addition to being a useful part of the human diet, the turnip has also historically been used as an animal food source. Herds of animals can graze fields of turnip greens almost year round, because several batches of turnips can be planted for different harvest times. The vegetables are an excellent source of vitamins K, A, and C, along with folate, manganese, calcium, and copper.

To grow turnips, seeds can be planted directly into the ground and well watered. As the young turnips start to grow, they can be periodically thinned to allow enough room for the tubers to develop. Within 45 to 60 days, turnips can be harvested and put into root storage, eaten, or preserved in cans or pickling jars. The smaller the turnip, the more flavorful, so many gardeners prefer to harvest turnips young and replant the seeds on a regular basis so that a steady supply of the crop can be maintained.

Spinach is similar in taste to turnip greens and can be used as a substitute.
Spinach is similar in taste to turnip greens and can be used as a substitute.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


I happen to love turnips and grow them in my garden every year. If I have a good crop, I can eat fresh turnips most all year long.

Once in awhile I run out and have to buy them at the store, but I have always enjoyed the taste of them.

I have a recipe for turnip soup that I love to make in the winter. This uses a combination of turnips and potatoes. I have found the smaller and younger the turnips are the more flavorful they are.

If you wait too long before you use them, they have a bitter taste that is hard to swallow. I make this soup with chicken stock, butter and some onions. Adding some seasoning like nutmeg is the perfect way to top it off.

I know that many people don't like the taste of turnips, but I have also found that many have never even tasted them before.

Even so, I haven't found very many people who enjoy the taste of turnips as much as I do.


When I was making some dietary changes and trying to add healthier foods to my diet, a friend gave me a mashed turnip recipe.

She said this was one of her family favorite holiday dishes, and I was excited to try something new.

I thought it would taste like mashed potatoes. The texture looks similar, but I just couldn't handle the taste. No matter how much I tried to add different seasonings, I couldn't eat any more of them.

Neither my husband or I ate turnips while we were growing up, and I doubt this is a vegetable we are going to add to our list of vegetables we like.


I put turnips in that category of vegetables that look better than they taste. Especially if they have a purple color to them, they look very tasty, but I really don't like the taste of them at all.

I find the same thing with a radish. The bright, red color looks like it would almost have a sweet taste, and they are definitely not sweet!

It is easy to understand why many families relied on eating turnips throughout the year. Growing turnips is easy to do, and since they keep so long when stored in a cellar, they could eat them all year long and know they were eating a fresh vegetable.

Many young people today have never tasted a turnip, but if you talk to people who are older, they have memories of eating them - both good and bad!


I grow turnips in my garden. I do not particularly like the turnip itself but I love fresh turnip greens. I think this is probably my favorite kind of green.

In the summer I can get greens for months and they go great with so many things. I like to boil them or saute them but I will even grill them or make salads out of them. The turnip green has such a distinctive flavor and when it is fresh out of the garden the sensations are only enhanced.


My mom made boiled turnips all the time when I was growing up and now I wouldn't mind never eating another turnip in my life. She would boil them and serve them with salt and pepper, no butter or anything.

I guess they were cheap and easy to cook and if you needed to fill up a bunch of hungry bellies they do the trick. But they definitely leave you wanting something different.


I went to a restaurant recently that served a turnip mash in place of mashed potatoes. I can't say that I preferred it but they were definitely tasty.

They were full of butter and salt so how bad could they really taste right? But a turnip is not a potato. In both flavor and texture they are pretty different. Still, kudos for being inventive.


Turnips are easy to grow. They need water in dry weather otherwise the roots will be small and woody.

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