Ark of Taste
Seven Top Turnip
Brassica rapa L. subsp. septiceps v. Seven Top
Like all turnips, the Seven Top is a biennial plant, but differs from the majority of varieties in its lack of bulbous subterranean stem —this version is cultivated exclusively for its greens (“turnip salad” in pre 1920 American nomenclature). While most turnip varieties were historically grown for animal fodder as well as human consumption, the Seven Top has been cultivated in the South since the 1830s exclusively for the human table. Planted in the fall for winter harvest, the foliage of the Seven Top is ready for harvest 45 days after sowing. If ingested raw, the foliage is cut when it attains six to nine inches of height. When cooked, the greens are allowed to grow up to two feet in height.
Sumptuous both raw and cooked, the Seven Top has long been the standard by which turnip greens have been measured in the American South. The greens are singularly rich in micronutrients.The young greens (from 35 to 45 days growth) are favored in salads, providing a piquancy to the greens — not so sharp as mustard, but more peppery that cos lettuce, cress, and pepper grass. In southern cookery it was particularly favored in wilted salads, in which hot bacon grease and salt are poured over the fresh, washed greens.
First noted in Virginia, the Seven Top Turnip became a garden fixture throughout Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama and Mississippi during the 19th century. Though the seed was carried by national garden seed companies during the first half of the 20th century, and it developed a strong following in Kentucky, southern Ohio, and Missouri, all seed production of the seven top turnip took place in the South, with Georgia being the leading producer.
Since most turnips in the 18th and 19th centuries were cultivated as winter fodder for animals (particularly sheep and cattle), the idea of growing turnips that lacked the bulbous stem—that part consumed by animals—was considered somewhat perverse. Due to its lack of bulb, this heirloom green vegetable is considered to be missing half its potential to attract money by revenue-conscious farmers. It is not currently in commercial production. It has survived thus far almost exclusively as a garden vegetable by that shrinking segment of home gardeners who cherish “turnip salad.”