Step up to the Plate: What's a Turnabaga?

Philip Kauth, assistant curator, and Steffen Mirsky, horticultural technician, make up the Seed Savers Exchange Evaluation Team.  The Eval Team is the division of the Preservation Department that keeps detailed records of more characteristics than most people know an individual variety can have. Their work helps us differentiate between the varieties in our collection and describe them clearly in the Yearbook. 

Step up to the Plate is a blog series in which the evaluation professionals profile a variety that stands out to their distinguished senses each month. They send their shouts and appreciation to Sara Straate, our in-house seed historian, who helped them research the variety highlighted in this post. 

March 2015: Turnip 8 ‘Westport’

At Seed Savers Exchange we sometimes lovingly refer to our collection of 103 turnips and 81 rutabagas as “turnabagas.”  Confusion reigns over these crop types; many turnips in our collection are actually rutabagas. Much of the confusion stems from the fact that a common name for rutabaga is Swedish turnip. Botanically, however, the two are different species. Our favorite example of this confusion is the ‘Westport’, or ‘Macomber’, turnip, or as it’s known in the Heritage Farm Collection, Turnip 8.    

'Macomber' you say? YOu look just like a 'Westport' I once knew!

Ann Cummings, our seed donor for Turnip 8, provided us with an extensive history for the variety, including two newspaper articles, one of which she penned herself.  She writes, “In 1876, at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition, the two brothers [Adin and Elihu Macomber] acquired seed for the turnip that was to bear their name.  For years thereafter, they grew it on their Main Road farm.  Eventually many other Westport and Dartmouth [Massachusetts] farmers were growing the same variety, as [a] cash crop that could be planted in mid-July after early potatoes were harvested.”

Cummings goes on to say that around the turn of the 19th century, the ‘Macomber’ turnip, as it was known then, was extremely popular in the region. With its rise in popularity, many farmers and companies began growing and selling the variety, but unfortunately this often yielded hybrid turnips (or rather, rutabagas). In all this growing and selling and crossing, the variety’s history gets murky.

In the 1930s, the Bristol County Agricultural Extension Service bred a pure strain of ‘Macomber’ seed, but they released it under the name ‘Bristol White’.  Long-time Westport farmer James W. Hancock Sr., however, informed Ms. Cummings that ‘Bristol White’ was not the true ‘Macomber’ turnip.    

Much later, in the 1980s, Agway released a variety they called the ‘Macomber’ turnip. Russell Davis, yet another Westport farmer and Ms. Cummings’ seed source, mentioned to Cummings that Agway’s release was also not a true ‘Macomber’ turnip.  

Ms. Cummings mentions that at the time of her article, Mr. Davis was one of the few farmers still growing the true ‘Macomber’ turnip for seed. He obtained his first seed in 1940 from John Breault of Old Dartmouth, MA. 

With her seed donation to Seed Savers Exchange, Ms. Cummings provided a description of ‘Macomber’ turnip as she heard it from James Hancock. He described them as white and funnel-shaped, with green leaves whose stems form a tight cluster at the neck. They taste sweet and mild, store well, and in Mr. Hancock's words, “come out of the ground so smooth and nice you don't have to wash them to send them to market.” 

Mugshot: 'Macomber' rutabaga, A.K.A. 'Macomber' Turnip, A.K.A. 'Westport' TUrnip

Our 2014 evaluation growout of the variety donated by Ms. Cummings, which she called ‘Westport’ turnip, revealed that it is in fact a true rutabaga (Brassica napus). It fits the historical description provided to us by Cummings, and we substantiated the claims that this variety has very smooth skin and sweet, mild flavor.  Because of its outstanding history and flavor, this variety is being offered as a limited edition Heritage Farm Collection variety in the 2015 Seed Savers Exchange Catalog under the most accurate name we can give it, ‘Macomber’ rutabaga.

‘Macomber’ Rutabaga’s 2015 Yearbook description: Variety is very good eaten raw. Raw roots are moderately spicy and sweet, very juicy, and have a firm, crisp texture. Cooked roots are soft and creamy with an earthy potato-like flavor that is slightly bitter. Large white roots have red or green coloring around the top and range in shape from elliptic to triangular. Several roots are rather tall and curved at the top. Roots 4.3 to 8.3 inches long, 1.75 to 4.25  inches wide, and weigh 4 to 35 ounces. Roots grow largely above the soil line. Long and wide rutabaga type leaves are dark green with a light green to very light purple midvein. Plants 8.3 to 15 inches tall and 26 to 45 inches in diameter.

Seed Savers Exchange is a non-profit organization located in Decorah, Iowa, with a mission to conserve and promote America's culturally diverse but endangered garden and food crop heritage for future generations by collecting, growing, and sharing heirloom seeds and plants.