Before they were bred to be brawny, red roots like Bull’s Blood, beets were just a leafy green that grew around the Mediterranean basin. Sea beet, or Beta vulgaris maritima, still grows along the salty marshes of the southern Mediterranean coast.
In ancient times, Greeks and Romans cultivated the ancestors of modern beets in their gardens and used the roots just for medicine.
The Romans spread beets, which they called “beta,” into northern Europe, and throughout the Middle Ages, beetroot grew in the monastery gardens of France, Spain and Italy — still cultivated mostly for its leaves, since the roots were long, thin and relatively scrawny.
But over time, breeders began selecting beets for their roots — especially in colder climates — because they kept well over winter. The Crapaudine, dating to the 17th century, is the oldest remnant of those early selections for roots. In some places, it’s still called by its original name — “oak bark beet” — so named for its elongated form and rough, cracked exterior. But its resemblance to the skin of a crapaud — the French word for toad — inspired the name that stuck.
In the mid 19th century, the improvement and selection of beets took some different directions. Beginning in the early 1800s, when England put a wartime blockade on France’s maritime supplies from the West Indies, the country began focusing on sugar beets as a replacement for cane sugar. Today, France is one of the largest sugar beet producers in the world. In England, a whole range of new beets was developed for their decorative dark red foliage that made spectacular displays in Victorian gardens. The Covent Garden red beet became the archetype of the British style, with its long, thin root and its almost black foliage.
In the U.S., another branch of breeding focused on a new type called “blood turnip” for its deep red and “turnip-shaped” root. Varieties of “blood turnip” started to show up in seed catalogues, including Dewing’s Early Red, Bastian’s Blood Red, Early Blood Turnip, Edman’s Early and Will’s Improved.
Bull’s Blood was created in the mid 19th century when an American breeder — whose name, unfortunately, has been lost to time — thought to marry the strong, dark foliage of the British decorative types with the bulbous red tubers of the “blood turnip.” It was a winning combination — Bull’s Blood produces stunning crimson leaves, perfect for salads, and sweet, candy-striped bulbs dripping with flavor. As the earlier “blood turnips” fell into obscurity, Bull’s Blood emerged as a favorite.
It’s highly adaptable to a range of growing conditions, and even tolerates some heat. Seed it densely, and enjoy the colorful and nutritious greens as you thin the crop for root harvest later in the season.
In 2015, Bull’s Blood made NASA’s short list of super greens to grow in the “veggie chamber” aboard the International Space Station, as part of research into how to keep astronauts healthy and nourished in space. Bull’s Blood ranked as an excellent source of essential nutrients such as calcium, potassium and magnesium — and for being easy to grow in an artificial environment. This heirloom beet with a colorful back story is also a food for the future!
Find Bull’s Blood beet seeds here.