I have a raised bed in my garden that barely gets any sun in the winter. Whatever’s growing there in the summer usually stays there until spring, when the days are longer and I plant anew.
Being a bienniel, that means my chard is the last of the crops to linger after the rest have bolted or died. It continues to grow delicious new leaves and sometimes even sends out new shoots (looking like little tree trunks), while the main “trunk” gets larger and woodier and pushed out of the ground.
Have you ever looked at the root of a second-year chard and thought… hmm that looks familiar?
Chard (Beta vulgaris) is also known as leaf beet or spinach beet, and in fact the two share the same botanical name, though chard is specifically Beta vulgaris v. cicla. The common beet is cultivated for its fleshy root, while chard is cultivated for its foliage.
So what came first, the beet or the chard?
Turns out, chard has been in existence since at least the 4th century BC — pretty much since the first written records of food were established in Europe. It was known as the sea beet (Beta vulgaris v. maritima), or wild beet, originating in the Mediterranean and spreading eastward into the area we now call the Middle East. (It still grows wild in these regions, and its leaves are so palatable that it’s known locally as wild spinach — thus our given names of spinach beet and perpetual spinach for those leafy greens.)
The beets that we see today were unknown before the Christian era, though it was believed that the ancients used the roots of the sea beet for medicinal purposes. Over several centuries, the sea beet (harvested primarily for its leaves) evolved into a multi-purpose plant as epicureans from the Roman Empire started cooking with the swollen roots that were harvested selectively from sea beets.
There would be no public record of beets again until 14th-century England, which revealed recipes using the root exclusively. It was still a rarity in the 16th century, when German records described a red beet with a turnip-like root. Though the beet remained an unimportant food crop through the next few hundred years, cultivation continued and picked up more popularity when it was brought to the United States in the early 19th century.
Most modern beets were only introduced to home gardens within the last 150 years, and they now come in a rainbow of colors from dark purple to snow white (and my personal favorite, Chioggia, which features pink and white-striped flesh) and in a spectrum of shapes from spherical to cylindrical. The garden beet is specifically bred for its sweet and earthy root, sending all of its energy into developing the root its first year.
Meanwhile, the cicla variety of Beta vulgaris (what we commonly call chard) sends all of its energy into developing a full head of foliage in its first year. Both varieties are bienniels, though a chard root will begin to swell (looking like a beetroot) at the end of its second year after it’s produced all of its leaves.
So in theory, chard root is edible (meaning it won’t kill you) as it belongs to the same species as the beet. But since the plant doesn’t start developing its root until the end of its life, the chard root is a hard, fibrous and bitter trunk, rather than the tender, fleshy and earthy root that we harvest from beet plants. (Have you ever left a radish in the ground too long? Such tough little suckers they become!)
Of course, if anyone out there actually wants to test this theory and roast up a chard root, please send me a report on your edible experiment!