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Rat-tailed Radish


Looking for a new and interesting vegetable to grow in the kitchen garden or ornamental border next spring? One that is beautiful, delicious and easy to grow? An heirloom that is not well known today but once was favored by English royalty? One that stops adults in their tracks and commands the attention of kids? Who wouldn't love a radish that grows in the air? A radish you can pick like green beans all summer even in high heat, a radish that is pungent or not depending upon how you choose to prepare it, one that is beautiful in bloom and in fruit, rich in history, and intriguing in form, taste and name. While common garden radishes, Raphanus sativus, are grown for their roots, with aerial radishes, it is the seed pod that is edible. All radish seed pods are edible, but varieties of the Caudatus Group have been bred especially for the pods, which are larger, have more flavor than ordinary pods, and produce pods more quickly. Green or purple, long or short, they are highly ornamental as well. Attractive flower clusters precede podding and are white or pinky-purple with pink pollination lines. Some have a darker purple edge. Pods are prolific and can grow straight up like candelabra, or twist and curl. Pods of long purple varieties can have reddish highlights and a lovely sheen.

Little known but not new

Edible-podded radishes are less known than their root cousins, but they are not new to American gardens. Introduced into England in 1815 from Java, by the 1860s they were popular as a kitchen garden vegetable in Europe and North America and as far away as Australia. By the turn of the century, however, they were being grown in American gardens only as curiosities. The plant may have become a victim of the hype, begun by Mr. Bull, who exhibited the curious radish at the great International Horticultural Exhibition in London in 1866. The new unnamed radish caused a sensation and was accompanied by claims of spectacular performance. It was claimed that its pods grow three inches overnight and attain a length of three to four feet. It was “destined to supersede root radishes of all kinds, and render us no longer dependent upon crops that were uncertain, and good only at certain times.” It was predicted that breeding with the garden radish would produce hybrids with both edible pods and roots. Soon there were others reporting growing it, and the descriptions, names used and place of origin were so different that it caused much confusion in the botanical and horticultural world. The disputes over name and classification were more easily settled than the claims of its marvelous qualities. Two camps quickly arose, equally passionate in their convictions. Walter Sculthorpe wrote that it “succeeded with me beyond my expectation, and is delicious.” J.B. of Dorset, however, could not endorse “the published statements that it is one of the most useful vegetables that has been lately introduced, or that it is of value as a salad, and still less that when boiled it is most delicious, eating like marrow, and having a most delicate flavour. I can only say that I have tried it in various ways and in each have found it to be nauseous and disagreeable.” He went on to say that he would continue to grow it for its “extraordinary forms” while “I repudiate the extravagant assertions that have been made as to its value as an esculent.” Rat-tail radish lovers persisted, and were delighted to find it growing at Sandringham, the seat of the Prince of Wales, where it was “much used and relished at the royal table”. One of the problems was that there were several varieties with quite different characteristics. The “true rat-tail was really very palatable indeed” with “juicy and succulent” pods, and the liquor pressed out “particularly agreeable.” Unbeknownst in England, the French and Americans had reported on edible-podded radish 6 years earlier. It became an international controversy. The Americans believed they were first to introduce Rat-tails, as did the French who described a “new” “Madras Radish” from India with shorter pods they decided was a different species. Prof. Lawson, a Canadian, jumped in to correct “several errors into which the French and Ameican horticulturists had fallen”. He pointed out that “this delicious vegetable”, whose origin was Java, had been successfully grown in Scotland for a decade, and by him in Canada, from seed sent to Prof. Balfour of Edinburgh by Mrs. Colonel Spottiswoode of Benares in 1856, a full description of which he had published in “Downing’s Horticulturist” (New York) in 1860. Whereupon the Americans reported that the short-podded kind from Madras “have been kicking about for the last 20 years”, and its seeds not valued much. It was decided that botanically they were both the same species, Raphanus caudatus, “but in a practical point of view there is considerable difference between a pod 3 ft. 3 in. such as were shown by Mr. Bull…and one of 8 inches…Both seem to be suited for salad, the short-fruited one being the more pungent of the two.” In 1879, “Amongst the novelties exhibited at the great International Horticultural Exhibition of 1866, few things attracted more attention as such than the group of Raphanus caudatus, or Long-tailed radish, exhibited by Mr. Bull….Like many other introductions, however, from which much is expected, the Rat-tailed radish has done neither of these things. Nevertheless there is much in the lengthy and curious seed pod to render it attractive to the palate.” As for the date of introduction, it was determined that it was first introduced into England in 1815.

Description, cultivation

Edible-podded radishes are hardy annuals. They grow three to four feet tall and form branches terminating in flower clusters from which smooth seed pods, called siliques, form. A plant easily produces four or more dozen edible pods, and can be stimulated to produce more. Flowering continues throughout the growing season, more so if pods are kept picked and branches pruned. Branches should be staked as the abundance of pods can bend them. Edible-podded radishes grow in full sun in any good garden soil, but prefer a sandy loam rich in organic matter. Culture is easy. Pests are the same as for root radishes, but are few in my small organic plot in Boston’s South End. Birds peck seedlings, but the plant quickly outgrows that stage, and birds leave larger hairy leaves alone. Slugs eat leaves but not seed pods. Aphids can be a minor problem later in the season, but lady beetles quickly eradicate them. Edible-podded radishes are a good alternative to root radishes where root maggots are a problem, as there is no fleshy root. Sow seeds 1/4 to 1/2 inch deep and thin to 12 inches. Plants can be grown closer, but harvesting is easier with some space between. Eat thinnings, which have the same flavor, and are delicious in salads. Sow in early spring and into summer. Edible-podded radishes tolerate heat better than root radishes, so may be grown during the summer, even when temperatures soar. Pods begin to form in 40 to 50 days, lower ones ripening first. Pick pods when they are tender, before they become fibrous. They are most crisp and pungent when about pencil-thick. Even when fibrous at the tip, however, parts near the stem can be tender. Test by gently snapping the pod, as you would for asparagus.


Varieties. How they differ.

Edible-podded radishes are known by many names around the world. Some of these are "aerial" radish, "Madras", "monkey-tailed", Mougri, "rat-tailed", "serpent", "serpentine bean", “Singri”, and “snake”. In England they were first introduced as “Spottiswoode’s radish from Java” and called a “tree radish”. “Rat-tailed” is the unfortunate name that has stuck in the U.S Commercially available varieties in the US are: ‘München Bier’, an old European variety, is popular in Munich, Germany where pods are eaten raw as a snack with beer. It has white flowers and light green pods three to five inches long. Rat-tailed, which includes varieties with long purple pods and varieties with green pods that are tinted with purple. Long purple pods are usually eight to twelve inches long, but some companies offer shorter ones. Flowers of long purple-podded radish are pink, and stems are violet-red in color.

Flavor and cookery

Pods are soft but crisp. When you bite into a pod you know you are eating a radish, and a pungent one at that, yet the flavor is more delicate and refined than that of a root radish. The texture is like that of a juicy chile pepper, which adds excitement to the experience, and appeals to people (like me) who don't crave root radishes. Pods are eaten raw or cooked. They are excellent as a snack or added to salads. They may be pickled in vinegar, or lightly stir-fried. In India they are cooked in ghee and used in curries. I like tangy food so I prefer them raw or barely cooked, because pods lose pungency with cooking. Pods are best when freshly picked, but may be kept chilled for a month or more. If you want to see people get really excited about radishes, offer them ethereal aerial rat-tails. Chomped in the garden, or served at the table, they are sure to intrigue and please. The following recipes were created by Sam Hayward, Executive Chef/Owner of the restaurant Fore Street, 288 Fore St, Portland ME in the Old Port. tel             (207) 775-2717      . Hayward is the winner of the 2004 James Beard award for best chef in the Northeast.


White cheese can be made by suspending live-culture, natural unflavored yogurt in a sieve lined with cheesecloth, and drained of its whey overnight. (The yogurt must be free of gelatine, carrageenan, or other thickeners, and should contain no sweeteners or flavorings.) Together the radishes and cheese make a snappy spread for crostini or crisp flat-breads. 3 cups natural yogurt 1 cup edible-pod radishes, sliced thin on a very long bias 1 tsp water-packed green peppercorns 1/4 tsp salt 1 Tb fresh chives, snipped very short Line a sieve or chinois with three layers of clean cheesecloth, rinsed in cool water and wrung nearly dry. Set the sieve over a container, and spoon in the yogurt. Allow the yogurt to drain for at least twelve hours. Save the whey for use in breads or pancakes. Crush the peppercorns to a paste with the flat side of a broad knife. Measure the radishes, and add the peppercorns, salt and radishes to the yogurt. Stir until well combined. Allow the cheese to ripen, covered and chilled, for at least two hours. Taste and adjust the seasonings. Stir well before serving. Serve chilled as a spread for crostini or toasted flat-bread, and sprinkle with snipped chives.



To serve four: 4 tiny yellow summer squashes, blossoms intact if possible 4 baby zucchini, blossoms intact 12 tiny pear onions, blanched and peeled 1 small baby eggplant, sliced 1/8 inch thick 2 cloves garlic, slivered 1/4 tsp fresh cayenne or jalapeno chili pepper, finely diced 1/4 cup currant tomatoes 1/4 cup shiitake mushrooms, caps only, sliced very thin 1 Tb sesame oil 1 Tb peanut oil 2 Tb shredded shiso leaves 1 Tb shredded cilantro leaves 2 Tb bottled Chinese oyster sauce 1 tsp tamari soy sauce 2 tsp rice wine vinegar 1/2 cup sliced edible-pod radishes Heat the oils in a wok to nearly smoking. Add the eggplant, pearl onions, summer squashes, zucchini, and mushrooms. Toss over high heat for three or four minutes. Add the slivered garlic and diced chili pepper, and toss briefly. Add the vinegar and oyster sauce. Toss to combine. Taste, and adjust seasoning with the tamari. Toss in the currant tomatoes and the shiso and cilantro, and turn into a serving dish. Add a few more drops of oil to the wok, heat for a moment, and add the sliced radishes. Toss for thirty seconds over high heat, and spoon the radishes over the vegetables. Serve immediately with steamed rice or rice noodles.


The effect of this preparation is analogous to the use of horseradish in simple butter sauces with rich fish such as swordfish, tuna or salmon. It even works well with beef. To serve four: 4 6 oz. fresh salmon filet sections 2 Tb olive oil Salt and milled black pepper to taste 2 medium shallots, diced 1 cup off-dry white wine, such as a California Riesling 1/2 cup white wine vinegar 1/2 tsp fresh lemon juice 1 tsp grainy mustard 2 Tb cream 6 oz. soft butter 1/2 cup edible-pod radishes, sliced thin, then chopped fine 2 Tb flat-leaf parsley leaves, chopped fine Prepare the grill. Rub the salmon filet section with a little olive oil, season with salt and pepper to taste, and reserve. In non-reacting skillet, toss the diced shallot for fifteen seconds without browning. Add the wine and vinegar, boil up for a few seconds, reduce the heat slightly, and simmer to reduce to 1/3 cup. Add the diced radishes, and simmer for one minute. By tablespoons, whisk in the butter to make a smooth emulsion. Add the mustard and lemon juice, whisking to combine. Taste and season with salt and milled pepper. Grill the salmon four minutes on each side, or according to your own preference. Divide among serving plates. Add the parsley to the sauce at the last moment, and spoon over the fish.


"Munchen Bier" (Munich Bier) – short plump green podded Thompson & Morgan, Inc., PO Box 1308, Jackson, NJ 08527-0308;             800/274-7333  The Cook's Garden, PO Box 535, Londonderry, VT 05148-0535; 802/824-3400 Rat-tailed, purple podded Bountiful Gardens, 18001 Shafer Ranch Road, Willits, CA 95490-9626;  707/459-6410 John Scheepers,             860-567-6086      , Peace Seeds, 2385 S.E. Thompson Street, Corvallis, OR 97333;             503/495-2409       Rich Farm Garden, Seed Savers Exchange, 3076 North Winn Road, Decorah, IA 52101;             319/382-5872       Seed Dreams: Old-Time Heirloom Vegetables and Grains. Shane Murphy. PO Box 1476, Santa Cruz CA 95061-1476 Rat-tailed, green streaked with purple Pinetree Garden Seeds, Box 300, New Gloucester, ME 04260;             207/926-3400   A

About the Author: Sally Williams is a free-lance writer, avid gardener and reader, and Editor of Garden Literature Index, an annotated author and subject index to articles about plants and gardens, soon to be released online by EBSCO Publishing based in Ipswich, MA. She can be reached at Copyright 2004 by Sally Williams. All rights reserved.



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