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the web of life in southern Africa

Beta vulgaris (Chard, Beetroot, Sugarbeet, Mangel-wurzel)

Life > eukaryotes > Archaeoplastida > Chloroplastida > Charophyta > Streptophytina > Plantae (land plants) > Tracheophyta (vascular plants) > Euphyllophyta > Lignophyta (woody plants) > Spermatophyta (seed plants) > Angiospermae (flowering plants) > Core Eudicots > Order: Caryophyllales > Family: Amaranthaceae

All the varieties of this domestic species ultimately originate from wild Sea Beet Beta maritima which is native to the Mediterranean and the Atlantic seaboard of Europe.

Varieties of Beta vulgaris were produced through selective cultivation of See Beet   which is native to the Mediterranean and the Atlantic seaboard of Europe as far north as the Baltic. Sea Beet does not have a swollen root unlike most of the varieties that have been produced from it. The main varieties of Beta vulgaris are as follows:

Beta vulgaris var. cicla (Leaf Beet, Spinach beet, Swiss chard)

A leafy vegetable, cooked like spinach and referred to, incorrectly, as spinach in South Africa. It was referred to by Aristotle in about 350 BC and was probably cultivated well before this. Rich in minerals (particularly magnesium but also calcium, iron, phosphorus and potassium) and also vitamins (particularly Vitamin A).

Beta vulgaris var. esculenta (Beetroot)

Eaten in Roman times at which time it was a long, white root. The swollen red root originated in about the mid 1500's. Its colour is the result of high concentrations of red betalains (nitrogen-containing pigments). If a person is doubly recessive for a certain gene, s/he is unable to break down this pigment and it is passed in the urine. Beetroot contains high levels of magnesium and manganese.


Beta vulgaris var. rapacea (Mangel-wurzel, Fodder beet)

Large white or yellow swollen roots developed in the 1700's for feeding livestock. The name Mangel-wurzel comes from the German for beet (mangel) and the German for root (wurzel).


Beta vulgaris var. vulgaris (Sugar beet)

By 1750 a process had been developed in Prussia for extracting sugar (sucrose) from red and white beets. During the Napoleonic wars British blockades cut off cane sugar supplies to the European continent and so the growing of Beet for sugar became economical and was also encouraged by Napoleon and the King of Prussia. Through selection, the sucrose level in the beets eventually reached about 20%. By 1900, beet sugar production in Europe was nearly as great as World cane sugar production.



  • Sauer, J.D. 1993. Historical geography of crop plants - a select roster. CRC Press, Boca Raton, Florida.

  • van Wyk, B.-E. 2005. Food Plants of the World - Identification, Culinary Uses and Nutritional Value. Briza, Pretoria.

Text by Hamish Robertson