2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Food and agriculture; Plants

Beta vulgaris subsp. vulgaris
Beta vulgaris subsp. vulgaris
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Plantae
Subkingdom: Tracheobionta
Superdivision: Spermatophyta
Division: Magnoliophyta
Class: Magnoliopsida
Subclass: Caryophyllidae
Order: Caryophyllales
Family: Chenopodiaceae
Genus: Beta
Species: B. vulgaris
Binomial name
Beta vulgaris

The beet (Beta vulgaris) is a flowering plant in the family Chenopodiaceae, native to the coasts of western and southern Europe, from southern Sweden and the British Isles south to the Mediterranean Sea. It is important because of its cultivated varieties, fodder beet, beetroot and the sugar-producing sugar beet.

It is a herbaceous biennial or perennial plant with leafy stems growing to 1-2 m tall. The leaves are heart-shaped, 5-20 cm long on wild plants (often much larger in cultivated plants). The flowers are produced in dense spikes, each flower very small, 3-5 mm diameter, green or tinged reddish, with five petals; they are wind-pollinated. The fruit is a cluster of hard nutlets.

There are three subspecies:

  • Beta vulgaris subsp. maritima. Sea Beet. Northwestern Europe. Plant smaller, to 80 cm tall; root not swollen.
  • Beta vulgaris subsp. vulgaris. Mediterranean Europe. Plant larger, to 2 m tall; with a rounded fleshy taproot. The ancestor of the cultivated beets (not subsp. maritima, as sometimes stated).
  • Beta vulgaris subsp. cicla - see Chard

The cultivated forms are thought to have come from sea-coast plants of Europe and Asia. With the imposition of the blockade of the continent during the Napoleonic wars there was an impetus to develop beet for their sugar content.

Cultivation and uses

The root and leaves of subsp. vulgaris are edible and an important food crop. Beetroot can be peeled, steamed, and then eaten warm with butter as a delicacy; cooked, pickled, and then eaten cold as a condiment; or peeled, shredded raw, and then eaten as a salad. The leaves and stems can be steamed briefly as a vegetable, although this is preferably done with young plants. These and older leaves and stems can be sliced and stir-fried and have a flavour resembling taro leaves. The stems can also be cooked with another foodstuff (eg., black beans) for an increased nutritional value.

Beets are used as a food plant by the larvae of a number of Lepidoptera species — see List of Lepidoptera which feed on Beet.


A selection of beets, also known as beetroots (cultivated Beta vulgaris), at a grocery store.
A selection of beets, also known as beetroots (cultivated Beta vulgaris), at a grocery store.

Numerous cultivars have been selected and bred for several different characteristics. For example, the "earthy" taste of some beet cultivars comes from the presence of the chemical compound geosmin. Researchers have not yet answered whether beets produce geosmin themselves, or whether it is produced by symbiotic soil microbes living in the plant. Nevertheless, breeding programs can produce cultivars with low geosmin levels yielding flavours more acceptable to shoppers.

Major Cultivar Groups include:

  • Fodder beet wurzel or mangold used as animal fodder.
  • Sugar beet grown for sugar.
  • Chard, a beet which has been bred for leaves instead of roots and is used as a leaf vegetable.
  • Beetroot or table beet (or, in the 19th century, "blood turnip") used as a root vegetable. Notable cultivars in this group include:
    • Albina Vereduna, a white variety.
    • Bull's Blood, an open-pollinated variety originally from Britain, known for its dark red foliage. It is grown prinicipally for its leaves, which add colour to salads.
    • Burpee's Golden, a beet with orange-red skin and yellow flesh.
    • Chioggia, an open-pollinated variety originally grown in Italy. The concentric rings of its red and white roots are visually striking when sliced. As a heritage variety, Chioggia is largely unimproved and has relatively high concentrations of geosmin.
    • Detroit Dark Red has relatively low concentrations of geosmin, and is therefore a popular commercial cultivar in the US.
    • India Beet is not that sweet compared to Western beet.
    • Lutz Greenleaf, a variety with a red root and green leaves, and a reputation for maintaining its quality well in storage.
    • Red Ace, the principal variety of beet found in U.S. supermarkets, typical for its bright red root and red-veined green foliage.

Nutritional information

Sundried tomato tuna with baby beets.
Sundried tomato tuna with baby beets.

The various table beets contain significant amounts of vitamin C in the roots, and the tops are an excellent source of vitamin A. They are also high in folate, as well as soluble and insoluble dietary fibre and several antioxidants.

Beetroot is among the sweetest of vegetables, containing more sugar even than carrots or sweet corn. The content of sugar in beetroot is no more than 10%, in the sugar beet it is typically 15 to 20%.

An average sized cup (226.8 grams) of sliced beets will contain:

  • Food energy 31 Cal (130 kJ)
  • Carbohydrate 8.5 g
  • Dietary fibre 1.5 g
  • Folate 53.2 µg
  • Phosphorus 32 mg
  • Potassium 259 mg
  • Protein 1.5 g

Beetroots can be cooked and eaten like potatoes or turnips, although they are not commonly consumed in North America due to their flavour. Beet recipes include borscht, a beet soup common in Eastern Europe. Beetroot is a popular hamburger condiment in Australia. Beet leaves are edible, and are used in 'beet rolls', a food similar to cabbage rolls that replaces the cabbage with beet leaves.

Beetroot colour

It is a popular misconception that the colour of red beetroot is due to a pigment known as anthocyanin which is the pigment in red cabbage. It is, in fact, due to a purple pigment betacyanin and a yellow pigment betaxanthin known collectively as betalins. Other breeds of beetroot which are not the usual deep red, such as 'Burpee's Golden' and 'Albina Vereduna', have a greater or lesser distribution of the two betalin pigments.

Betacyanin in beetroot may cause red urine and feces in some people who are unable to break it down.

The pigments are contained in cell vacuoles. Beetroot cells are quite unstable and will 'leak' when cut, heated, or when in contact with air or sunlight. This is why red beetroots leave a purple stain. Leaving the skin on when cooking, however, will maintain the integrity of the cells and therefore minimise leakage.

The pigment is stable in acidic conditions, which is a major reason why beetroot is often pickled. In the United States, it is the traditional colorant for pink lemonade. Beet juice is also a common choice for edible ink, such as for marking grades on cuts of meat.

Medicinal uses

Various cultivated forms of Beta vulgaris have been used for medicinal purposes since ancient times.

The Romans used beetroot as a treatment for fevers and constipation, amongst other ailments. Apicius in De Re Coquinaria gives five recipes for soups to be given as a laxative, three of which feature the root of beet. Hippocrates advocated the use of beet leaves as binding for wounds.

Since Roman times, beetroot juice has been considered an aphrodisiac. It is a rich source of the mineral boron, which plays an important role in the production of human sex hormones.

From the Middle Ages, beetroot was used as a treatment for a variety of conditions, especially illnesses relating to digestion and the blood. Platina recommended taking beetroot with garlic to nullify the effects of 'garlic-breath'.

Today the beetroot is still championed as a cureall. One of the most controversial examples is the official position of the South African Health Minister on the treatment of AIDS. Dr Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, Health Minister under Thabo Mbeki, has been nicknamed 'Dr Beetroot' for promoting beets and other vegetables over anti-retroviral AIDS medicines, which she considers toxic.

Beetroots are rich in the nutrient Betaine. Betaine supplements, manufactured as a byproduct of sugar beet processing, are prescribed to lower potentially toxic levels of homocysteine (Hcy), a naturally occurring amino acid that can be harmful to blood vessels thereby contributing to the development of heart disease, stroke, and peripheral vascular disease.


  • Field Marshall Montgomery is reputed to have exhorted his troops to 'take favours in the beetroot fields', a euphemism for visiting prostitutes.
  • The rock group British Sea Power featured the song Favours in the beetroot fields on their debut album The Decline of British Sea Power.
  • The television cartoon " Doug" features a popular teenage rock band that has the name "The Beets".
  • In Jitterbug Perfume by Tom Robbins, almost everything in the plot revolves around the beet.
  • "Beets" by Einstein's Little Homunculus waxes eloquent on the desirability of beets.
  • The Beatroots are a UK band created in 2000.
  • The Beatroots is the name of a 1994 music album by The Fred Bison Five (Fred Bison is a pseudonym used by Nick Salomon).
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