Sunday, March 20, 2022

Plant Story--Little Red Radishes, Raphanus sativus

The radish is an ancient vegetable that has been mainly reduced to a garnish. 

radishes, Raphanus sativus
radishes, Raphanus sativus

Calling the radish just a condiment is a little excessive, since in Asia radishes are important foods, but in my life, mostly little radishes are sliced into a salad for a little color. Yet they have been grown by Europeans for 5,000 years, and in Asia for at least 2,000. They were an important vegetable in Egypt 4,000 years ago. Greeks and Romans ate radishes, cooked and raw. The Romans spread them all over Europe But we don't seriously consider eating a dish of radishes...
With that much history and a worldwide distribution, radishes are a big topic, so I am confining this post to round red radishes, and excluding Asian radishes (such as daikon), black-rooted European radishes, rat-tail Asian radishes grown for their leaves, and fodder radishes, all of which are the same species, Raphanus sativus (cabbage family, Brassicaceae).

The first appearance of our globular radish was in the 18th century. It was initially white. The bright red color appeared as a mutation later; people loved it and propagated it.  

radish, Raphanus sativus
radish, Raphanus sativus

Radishes are biennial, flowering in their second year. Red, white, or red-and-white little round radishes are harvested the first year. The radish for which we grow the plant is where the plant stores energy from its first year of life to help with flowering the next year. Allowed to grow on after the radish first forms, it will become tough and pithy. Seeds are produced only in the second year and seed companies generally do that for casual gardeners. Other radishes are grown for their leaves or roots and you could eat the leaves and seed pods of your garden radish, but they are nowhere near as tasty as the round radish. 

Radishes are easy to grow. They are cool season vegetables that grow best in mild temperatures and resist frosts. So I soothe my urge to get outdoors in early spring by planting radishes "as soon as the soil can be worked" (as the seed companies put it). They grow rapidly and many can be harvested within six weeks. A very satisfying little crop

radish, Raphanus sativus
radish, Raphanus sativus

The word radish is derived from the Latin for root, radix. It sounds like "reddish," but the name is far older than the red-colored root, going back to Old English, and the name is shared with most European languages. Raphanus was the classical Greek name for radish, and sativus means "edible" "cultivated." (thanks, David Gorsline). It is in the mustard family, Brassicaceae, and the sharp taste comes from glucosinolates, myrosinases, and isothiocyanates shared with mustards. 

radish, Raphanus sativus
radish, Raphanus sativus

In 1653 Nicholas Culpeper wrote that the garden radish is "so well known it needs no description." (p. 287). He and his contemporaries disparaged the radish; "it does not give much nourishment, and is very windy" he continued. Thomas Hill, writing a garden book in 1652, said "radish eaten before or after meat, causeth wind, dulleth the braine, eyes, and reason" (Mabey, p. 211). 

However, from ancient times, radishes were considered good medication for gall and kidney stones. Their chemistry lets them store well, and they hold enough vitamin C through the winter to be a year-round antidote to scurvy. These uses are supported by modern science, but other claims haven't been verified. Radishes reportedly induced lust, which as a healthy vegetable, they might, if by lust they meant sexual energy. More doubtful are curing poisons and snakebites, removing freckles and restoring hair. The Leech Book of Bald (English, about the year 1000) stated: "Against a woman's chatter: taste at night fasting the root of a radish, that day the chatter cannot harm you."(III-lvii). Carried, radishes protected against the evil eye.

radish plants, Raphanus sativus
radish plants, Raphanus sativus

Like all of the cabbage family, radishes in any form are good for you, with minerals and anti-cancer compounds. Grow and eat radishes!

Comments and corrections welcome.


Cockayne, T. O. 1961. Leechcraft, Wortcunning and Starcraft of Early England. The Holland Press. London.

Culpeper, N. No date given, original 1653. Culpeper's Complete Herbal. W. Foulsham and Company. London. Online version: link From at 1810 edition.

Cunningham, S. 1985. Cunningham's Encyclopedia of Magical Herbs. Llewellyn Publications. St. Paul, Minnesota.

Harrison, L. 2011. A Potted History of Vegetables. Lyons Press. Guildford, Connecticut.

Mabey, R. editor. 1987. The Gardeners Labyrith by Thomas Hill. (originally published 1652). Oxford University Press. London.

Oxford English Dictionary Online. 2022. "radish, n.". OED Online. Oxford University Press. (accessed March 19, 2022).

Storl, W. D. 2016. A Curious History of Vegetables. North Atlantic Books. Berkeley, California.

Van Wyk, B-E. 2005. Food Plants of the World. Timber Press. Portland, Oregon.

Kathy Keeler, A Wandering Botanist


  1. I have always read sativus/a as "cultivated."

    1. yes. You are right! I relied on memory and didn't check. Thank you.