Ark of Taste
The mangel-wurzel is a rare beet developed in the 18th century as a fodder crop for feeding livestock, and when harvested young, makes for an excellent source of nutrition for the farmer. The German name “mangel” translates to beet, and “wurzel” means root. The mangel-wurzel is closely related to Swiss chard and sugar beets. In the wild, the beet produces edible chard-like leaves. The root grows in an array of colors including white, pink, red, orange, golden, and purple or black. It’s covered in shallow dimples and comes in different shapes ranging from long, to ovoid, and globe, as well as others. Both the mangel-wurzel leaves and roots are edible. This beet adapts well to cold weather, and requires well-composted soil and regular watering. This is a very hardy variety originally prized for its ability to grow in a range of climates and soil conditions. In hard soil for example, the root will extend horizontally instead of vertically to compensate. In addition, they make excellent food for livestock as result of the root’s watery and juicy nature. Some varieties of mangel-wurzel are heavy producers growing up to 20 lbs. in weight, and up to 2-3 feet long.
Historical Info and Preservation Efforts
The mangel-wurzel has history in England, where it was difficult to grow corn for livestock feed and so the large root found its way into farm culture. In South Somerset, Norfolk, and Wales, Punkie Night is celebrated on the last Thursday of October every year. Children carry around lanterns called Punkies which are hollowed out mangel-wurzels. The root has also been used for Mangold Hurling, a sport that dates back to the 11th century, where participants stand inside a wicker basket and hurl the root as far as they can. The root can also be used to brew a potent alcoholic beverage that is similar to beer. By the late 1800’s in the United States, mangel-wurzel was being cultivated on the East Coast. The crop was less sensitive to weather variations, had good tolerance to drought, excellent root preservation qualities, high sugar content, and provided large yields per acre in comparison to other crops. In the cool climate of New England, it was valued as a good alternative to grains.
For much of the history of the mangel-wurzel, its primary use was as fodder for livestock, mainly cows, pigs, and chickens. Unfortunately this designation led to an increasingly infrequent appearance on the table. As corn subsidies in the U.S. increased, the economic viability of the mangel-wurzel as a primary food source lessened. As a result, the beet has fallen out of favor both on the table, and as feed. However the mangel-wurzel is an excellent, and hardy crop, well suited for human consumption.
Both the leaves and roots of the mangel-wurzel are edible. The roots are tender, juicy, and flavorful when harvested young, which is the ideal harvest time if intended for human consumption. If intended for livestock it is best to let the beet get slightly larger, which increases yield, and allows for a more watery, juicy crop.
Or check out some additional readings
““The Field and Garden Vegetables of America” 1865 by F. Burr “The Forage and Fiber Crops of America” by Thomas Forsyth Hunt “Heirloom Beets” by Lawrence Davis-Hollander The Farmers Museum of New York “Vegetable Fodder & Forage Crops” Washington State University Extension “Hands to Work, Hearts to God: The Story of the Shaker Seed Industry” by Laura Paine Old Sturbridge Village of Massachusetts Jefferson’s Monticello