The mangelwurzel is a beet (Beta vulgaris) developed in the 18th century as a fodder crop for livestock that, when harvested young, is an excellent source of nutrition for the farmer. The mangelwurzel is closely related to Swiss chard and sugar beets. In the wild, the beet produces edible, chard-like leaves. The root grows in an array of colors including white, pink, red, orange, golden, and purple or black. It is covered in shallow dimples and comes in different shapes ranging from long to ovoid to spherical, as well as others. Both the mangelwurzel leaves and roots are edible. This beet adapts well to cold weather and requires well-composted soil and regular watering. This is a very hardy variety originally prized for its ability to grow in a range of climates and soil conditions. In hard soil, for example, the root will extend horizontally instead of vertically to compensate. In addition, the watery, juicy roots make excellent food for livestock. Some varieties of mangelwurzel are heavy producers, growing up to 9 kilogrmas in weight, and almost a meter long.
The mangelwurzel was grown in England, where the large roots found their way into farm culture because it was difficult to grow corn for livestock. In South Somerset, Norfolk, and Wales, during Punkie Night (celebrated on the last Thursday of October), children carry around lanterns called Punkies which are hollowed out mangelwurzels. The root has also been used for mangold hurling, a sport that dates back to the 11th century, where participants stand inside a wicker basket and hurl the root as far as they can. The root can also be used to brew a potent alcoholic beverage. By the late 1800s in the United States, mangelwurzel was being cultivated on the East Coast. The crop was less sensitive to weather variations, had good tolerance to drought, excellent root preservation qualities, high sugar content, and provided large yields per acre in comparison to other crops. In the cool climate of New England, it was valued as a good alternative to grains.
For a long time, the mangelwurzel’s primary use was as fodder for livestock, mainly cows, pigs, and chickens. Unfortunately this designation led to an increasingly infrequent appearance on the table. As corn subsidies in the US increased, the economic viability of the mangelwurzel as a primary food source declined. As a result, this beet has fallen out of favor as both food and feed. However, the mangelwurzel is an excellent and hardy crop, well suited for human consumption. The roots are tender, juicy, and flavorful when harvested young, which is the ideal harvest time if intended for human consumption. If intended for livestock it is best to let the beet get slightly larger, which increases yield and allows for a juicier crop.