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Beta vulgaris (beet)

Beetroot, Swiss chard, sugar beet and mangel-wurzel are all cultivars of the same species, Beta vulgaris.

Beta vulgaris (beet) beetroots

Beetroot (Beta vulgaris) (Photo: Quadell licensed under CC by 3.0)

Species information

Scientific name: 

Beta vulgaris L.

Common name: 

beet, beetroot, wild sea-beet, Swiss chard, rhubarb chard, spinach beet, silver beet, sugar beet, mangel-wurzel, mangold

Conservation status: 

Widespread in cultivation.

Habitat: 

Coastal.

Key Uses: 

Food and drink, livestock-feed, traditional medicine.

Known hazards: 

None known.

Taxonomy

Subclass: 
Superorder: 
Caryophyllanae
Order: 
Caryophyllales
Family: 
Amaranthaceae
Genus: Beta

About this species

Evidence suggests that Beta vulgaris has been cultivated since the 1st century AD, over which time a diverse range of forms have been developed. These include sugar beet, which is a major agricultural crop, providing about 30% of the world’s sugar. Fodder beet cultivars are also an important source of cattle-feed.

Beta vulgaris is a member of the amaranth and goosefoot family (Amaranthaceae), which also includes spinach (Spinacia oleracea) and quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa). The generic name Beta derives from the Celtic bett meaning red. 

Medicinal Uses

Beetroot was used medicinally in Ancient Rome and is used in the herbal treatment of cancer today. It contains high concentrations of red betalains (anti-oxidants), vitamin C, tyrosine, iron and folic acid. Some individuals are unable to metabolize red betanin, leading to the production of red urine (known as beeturia).

Synonym: 

Beta alba DC., Beta altissima Steud., Beta atriplicifolia Rouy (full list available on The Plant List)

Genus: 
Beta

Discover more

Cultivar groups

There are considered to be four major cultivar groups of Beta vulgaris:

  • Garden beet group (beetroot)
  • Leaf beet group (rhubarb chard, spinach beet, Swiss chard, silver beet)
  • Sugar beet group (sugar beet)
  • Fodder beet group (mangel-wurzel, mangold)

Geography and distribution

Beta vulgaris subspecies maritima (sea beet) grows wild along the Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts of Europe, where it is found near the sea shore, particularly in heavy alluvial soils and clays at disturbed sites.

Beta vulgaris (beet) illustration

Botanical illustration of sugar beet, taken from Atlas des Plantes de France (1891).

Cultivars of Beta vulgaris are grown throughout Europe and North America.

Description

Overview: A polymorphic biennial (flowering in the second year of growth), up to 2 m tall when in flower.

Leaves: Basal leaves forming a rosette.

Flowers: Small, green, borne in clusters subtended by bracts, forming dense, usually branched inflorescences. Each flower contains two stigmas (female parts).

Fruits and seeds: ‘Seeds’ are actually fruits that are attached to each other and enveloped in a woody covering (calyces). 

Leaf beet cultivar group (rhubarb chard, spinach beet, Swiss chard, silver beet) – root not usually swollen, leaf midrib of some cultivars dark orange or scarlet, lamina sometimes puckered.

Garden and fodder beet groups (beetroot, mangel-wurzel, mangold) – hypocotyl (area just above the root) swollen, plant often flushed red-purple or yellow-white but lamina and inflorescence axis usually green.

Sugar beet - whitish, conical ‘roots’, up to 50 cm long.

Beta vulgaris subspecies maritima (sea beet) - stem to 80 cm tall, root not swollen, leaves to 10 cm long, flowers in clusters of 1–3.

Uses

Food and drink (sugar, root vegetable, leafy vegetable)

Sugar beet is a major agricultural crop throughout Europe and North America, and the most important source of sugar in temperate countries. Sugar beet ‘roots’ contain up to 20% sugar by weight and have been used for commercial sugar extraction since 1801.

Beta vulgaris (beet) sugar cubes

Sugar beet is an important source of sugar

Beetroot is a popular vegetable, eaten boiled, pickled, or grated raw for salads. It is the main ingredient of borscht, a soup of Ukrainian origin. Beetroot juice is marketed as a healthy drink, alone or mixed with other juices.

Spinach beet is cultivated for its succulent leaves, which are similar in flavour to spinach and used in the same way. Cultivars known by the common names seakale-beet, chard, swiss chard and rhubarb chard differ mainly in having a broad, white leaf stalk, which is often eaten as a separate vegetable, while the green blade is used like spinach. Cultivars with reddish-purple, yellow or orange leaf-stalks and blades are available.

Sea beet leaves are one of the most popular wild vegetables in Britain, where the tangy leaves are cooked like spinach.

Livestock feed

Cultivars from the fodder beet group, known by common names such as mangel-wurzel and mangold, are grown specifically as cattle feed. The UK record for the largest recorded ‘root’ (actually a swollen hypocotyl) is 24.72 kg.

The leafy tops of sugar beet are a good animal feed, as are the root residue and molasses produced during sugar extraction.

Other uses

Molasses produced during the extraction of sugar from sugar beet is used to make industrial alcohol. Filter cake, the residue left behind after the purification of sugar beet juice, is used as manure. Beetroot is used as a natural dye. Sugar beet roots have been proposed as a potential biofuel.

The flavour enhancer monosodium glutamate (MSG) is sometimes produced by bacterial fermentation using carbohydrates from sugar beet molasses.

Cultivars such as Beta vulgaris ‘Dracaenofolia’, which has narrow, deep scarlet leaves, are grown as ornamentals.

Millennium Seed Bank: Seed storage

The Millennium Seed Bank Partnership aims to save plant life worldwide, focusing on plants under threat and those of most use in the future. Seeds are dried, packaged and stored at a sub-zero temperature in our seed bank vault.

More than 80 collections of Beta vulgaris seeds are held in Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank based at Wakehurst in West Sussex.

See Kew’s Seed Information Database for further information on Beta vulgaris seeds

This species at Kew

Beta vulgaris can be seen growing in the Queen’s Garden (behind Kew Palace) at Kew.

Dried specimens of Beta vulgaris are held in Kew’s Herbarium where they are available to researchers by appointment. Details of specimens of other Beta species can be seen online in Kew’s Herbarium Catalogue.

Specimens of beet seeds, briquettes, pulp and pellets, as well as sugar, paper and insulating boards made from it, are held in Kew’s Economic Botany Collection in the Sir Joseph Banks Building, where they are available to researchers by appointment.

References and credits

Huxley, A., Griffiths, M. & Levy, M. (eds) (1999). The New Royal Horticultural Society Dictionary of Gardening. Volume 1 (A to C). Macmillan Reference, London.

Image: 'Beets at Kroger' by Quadell, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. Available online

Letschert, J. P. W. & Frese, L. (1993). Analysis of morphological variation in wild beet (Beta vulgaris L.) from Sicily. Genetic Resources and Crop Evolution 40: 15–24.

Mabberley, D. J. (2008). Mabberley’s Plant-book: a Portable Dictionary of Plants, their Classification and Uses. 3rd edition. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.

Mabey, R. (1997). Flora Britannica. Chatto & Windus, London.

Vaughan, J. G. & Geissler, C. A. (2009). The New Oxford Book of Food Plants. 2nd Edition. Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK.

Kew science editor: Emma Tredwell
Copyediting: Emma Tredwell

Although every effort has been taken to ensure that the information contained in these pages is reliable and complete, notes on hazards, edibility and suchlike included here are recorded information and do not constitute recommendations. No responsibility will be taken for readers’ own actions.

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