Let’s Hear It For Radishes
When I think of a radish, images of colorful, bite-sized pieces in festive salads or thinly-sliced toppings on decorative appetizers come to mind. This familiar root vegetable is well-known as a versatile accompaniment, but once you know its nutritional benefits, you might want to move the radish front-and-center for regular intake. First of all, just about every bit of a radish can be consumed: the bulb (also referred to as the globe), as well as the leaves and seeds are edible. That means it won’t contribute much to your compost pile, but it does pack a powerful punch for dietary health. The radish belongs to the Brassicaceae family, so it’s a “cousin” of broccoli, cauliflower, kale, cabbage, turnips, and mustard greens. Let’s explore more about Rhaphanus sativus (common radish) and Rhaphanus sativus var. longipinnatus (Daikon or Asian varieties).
The term “radish” comes from the Latin word “radix,” which means root. In the United States the most popular variety is small, red, and round with a feathery tail at the bottom. When sliced open, this radish is pungent and creamy white, offering a crisp, peppery-flavor. Other types of radishes are larger, elongated (shaped like a carrot), or cylindrical, and they come in a wide range of colors. Their skin can be white, pink, purple, or black, and the flesh inside might be white, pink, yellow, or green. Common to all radishes is a zesty flavor that announces its presence as soon as you bite into them. For those who prefer more subtle taste bud reactions, the Daikon varieties are a bit milder.
If you’re concerned about your waistline, don’t worry, because a half-cup serving of sliced radishes contains only 12 calories. However, this half-cup serving is an excellent source of fiber, folic acid (reduces cancer risk), flavonoids (anti-inflammatory), and the following vitamins: C (an antioxidant), E, A, B6, and K. Radishes are also rich in potassium, a nutrient that can lower blood pressure and keep blood-flow under control throughout your body. In addition, radishes help regulate the production of bile, which is great news for your liver and gall bladder. They even support collagen production, which is a boost for healthy skin and blood vessels. Wow, plenty of health benefits!
Sound too good to be true? Well, even better is the fact that radishes can be eaten raw, cooked, or pickled. To enjoy them raw, be sure to select younger, smaller radishes for the most satisfying flavor. Slice or cut them for tossed salads, grate them and add to fresh slaw recipes, chop them and put into chicken salad or tacos, or add radish slices to your favorite sandwich or burger. Remember not to discard the radish greens. They can be sautéed in olive oil with garlic and/or mixed with other greens, such as kale or spinach, to yield a yummy, highly nutritious side dish. And, for those who want more possibilities, you can pickle radishes in brine (like cucumbers) to create a tasty treat. If your tummy isn’t growling yet, the creative radish recipes at this site might lead to that outcome. Although not widely known, radish seeds can also be pressed to produce oil used for biofuel.
Regarding cultivation, my experience has proven that radishes are super-easy to grow from seed. They do well in loose soil with a pH of 6.0 – 8.0. They appreciate organic matter, but don’t over-fertilize, or plants will have beautiful foliage, leaving the root crop less-developed. Radish seeds can germinate and grow just about anywhere, as long as the earth is not too rocky. Radish plants thrive in full sunlight, but they tolerate partial shade. Seeds will be happiest when sown in cool weather (60 – 65 degrees F), so early spring or late summer (for fall crop) are optimal times to plant radishes.
To start, use a trowel or spade to gently till the soil, reaching down to at least 8 inches below the surface. Seeds are small, so handle them carefully as you plant at a depth of ½ inch, leaving about an inch of space between each seed. As often happens in a garden, expect the unexpected! I remember how the wind came along one spring day when I was planting my radish seeds and knocked the packet right out of my hands. As you can imagine, I later had a bumper crop of radishes smack in the middle of a garden pathway that resembled a crazy pile instead of a tidy row.
Your planting efforts will be rewarded quickly because radish seeds germinate in just 4 – 6 days. Be vigilant and thin them early on (no more than an inch tall) to prevent overcrowding and malformation of the globes underground. Keep the soil moist, and the seedlings will thank you as they stretch upward. Small varieties of radishes will be ready for consumption within a month, and are best picked when young to avoid bitterness. Consider this clever strategy: sow a new group of seeds every ten days to provide a steady harvest of crunchy radishes throughout the growing season. Note that radishes are a great companion plant in the garden because their strong odor tends to deter insect pests, such as aphids, squash bugs, and tomato hornworms. So, regardless of taste preferences, radishes are your friend!
I find it fascinating to know where plants originated, and the history of the radish doesn’t disappoint. The Chinese cultivated radishes way back in 700 B.C. and then introduced them to the Japanese, who still use radishes extensively in their cuisine. Wild radish varieties are found in Southeast and Central Asia and India today, so it’s likely that early civilizations were growing the plant in those regions. Historical records indicate that laborers who built the ancient Egyptian pyramids were paid unusual wages: they were given onions, garlic, and radishes. 400 years later (300 B.C.) written records suggest that the Greeks and Romans were growing and consuming radishes in southern Europe. Today, wild varieties are found in areas of western Asia and Europe, which suggests that radishes were domesticated there. As for the new world, British settlers took the radish over to America in the 1600s, where it was often served at breakfast, lunch, and dinner. And Thomas Jefferson, who took copious notes about his agricultural pursuits, wrote about cultivating radishes at Monticello on May 27, 1767.
If you haven’t yet tried cultivating radishes and are eager to enrich your diet with a nutritious root crop that’s a snap to sow and grow, give it a whirl this spring! Or, if you prefer to let others do the digging, look for fresh radishes at your local farmers’ market and try a few new recipes with this little red marvel.
“Root Crops,” Va.Coop.Ext. Pub.No. 426-422, “https://www.pubs.ext.vt.edu/content/dam/pubs_ext_vt_edu/426/426-422/426-422-pdf.pdf