Collecting the folklore and uses of plants

QUERY: Swedes and turnips

Following the comment recently added to Turnip on the Material Collected page on this website, it would be interesting to know which names are known for which roots where.  In west Dorset in the 1950s turnips had white flesh and white and purple skin, while swedes  were bigger and harder an had pale orange flesh and dull purple skins.  But it appears that elsewhere,  such as in the north of England, what were known as swedes in Dorset were known as turnips.  Any comments to please.


Agree swedes have orange flesh, turnips have white

Yes, turnips white, swedes orange [Dawn Powell, London, grew up in Malvern, Worcestershire].

I grew up in west Dorset in the 1950s-60s and I knew the white-fleshed ones as turnips and the orange-fleshed ones as swedes.  I always remember that swedes were harder to peel; turnips were often grown as cattle food [Graham Fry, Mosterton, Dorset].

Swedes on the left in the photo, turnips on the right; I grew up in North America [Suzanne Ellis, London].

I agree, swedes are orange, turnips are white.  I’m a true southerner, born Bucks, brought up in Surrey/Hampshire, lived in London, and then settled in north Somerset. I love swede but tend to dislike turnips [Faith Moulin, Yatton, Somerset].

Coming from Norfolk we referred to them in just the same way as you did in west Dorset.  I have since heard the orange-fleshed one referred to as a turnip or a swede-turnip.  The purple/white one was sometimes called a white turnip, which avoids confusion.  In Scotland bashed neeps (which sounds like a corruption of truneeps) actually refers to what you and I would call mashed swede.  It was years before I realised that swede was the same as rutabaga, a word only encountered on the label of Branston pickle jars, which I had assumed to be a much more exotic sort of vegetable [Gail-Nina Anderson, Newcastle-on-Tyne].

Agree, orange-fleshed ones swedes, white-fleshed turnips, London.  Turnips in Italy are called pastinaca and they are still considered cattle food [Claudia Colia, London].

Turnips [with white flesh] for sure.  I think Geordie mum called the yellow ones neeps, but we only had them if she did New Year haggis [Helen Firminger, London].

As a child [in Ireland] we always had the orange-fleshed root and it was called a swede. I never saw a white-fleshed turnip in the house.  However, I have a feeling that the words swede and turnip may have been interchangeable in Ireland.  There is an example of a jack-o’lantern in the National Museum of Ireland which is referred to as being carved from a turnip, but it looks more like a swede to me! Confusing [Anne Roache, London].

I grew up in Utah, the ones on the left are rutabaga, and the ones on the right are turnips [Craig Swick, Arizona].

And six others:  Stephen Cox (London),  Mandy Holloway (Bedfordshire, referring to south London), Jennifer Kavanagh (London),  Jane Lawson (London, referring to Nottingham), Ian MacIntyre (London, referring to west Dorset), Tracey Milne (Horsham, West Sussex, referring to Didcot, Oxfordshire), and Tommy Root (Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire, referring to Cambridge and Colindale, London).

Disagree, turnips have orange flesh

Being Scottish I refer to swedes as turnips, or neeps (as in haggis neeps and tatties).  I fact I didn’t even know of the white-fleshed root with  purple and white skin turnip until I was of quite an advanced age.  We used to carve our Halloween lantern out of a turnip [Moira O’Donnell, Croydon].

In Scotland swedes are called neeps, hence neeps and tatties.  They are called turnips in the northeast of England.  Swede is nice, with lots of pepper; mashed turnips are bland southern food, they really need pickling to be edible [Phil Laurie, Faversham, Kent].

In Tynedale, in Northumberland they [the orange-fleshed ones] are definitely turnips, not swedes [Averil Shepherd, Ovington, Northumberland].

In Teeside in the 1980s the yellow ones were turnips – not sure I had the white ones before moving south  Halloween reminds me of the smell of scorched turnip [Steve Welburn, London].

As I happened to be chatting to with a friend from Bangor (the one in Northern Ireland) I asked him about the local names when he was growing up.  Turnips was definitely the yellow-fleshed swede, but he said they never thought of eating them, but just used them to carve jack-o’-lanterns  When I described the white-fleshed turnip he couldn’t remember ever seeing or eating one [Gail-Nina Anderson, Newcastle-on-Tyne].

Also two others: Jim Blackwood (London, referring to Scotland),  and Polly Shearlaw (Co. Durham).

Additional comments

Swedes were originally called (in English) Swedish turnips, hence the confusion [Linda Loeser, Richmond, New Zealand].

In my childhood, and in the memories of many northerners, both were referred to as turnips.  I fact the smaller turnips were a rarity, the vegetables often now called swedes were called turnips. The Scots ‘neeps and tatties’ were orange swedes with potatoes. I still call them turnips, and as kids that was what we hollowed out for lanterns at Hallowe’en [Janet Coyle, Childwell, Liverpool].

According to Clive Stace in his New Flora of the British Isles, ed. 4 (2019), turnip is the white-fleshed Brassica rapa ssp. rapa, and swede is the orange-fleshed B. napus ssp. rapifera [RV].

Images: upper, stall in Brixton Market, London Borough of Lambeth, with orange-fleshed swedes on the left and white-fleshed turnips on the right, November 2022; lower, Neil’s Quality Greengrocers, Kirkgate Market, Leeds, West Yorkshire, February 2023.

Updated 20 February 2023.

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