The forgotten radish – rat’s tail

Radish are a bit of a Cinderella vegetable. We all know about radishes and that they are easy to grow but how many of us grow them. Their simple cultivation makes them something we grew as a child but don’t bother with much as adults. Their crisp texture and fiery taste makes it obvious that they are good for you and they do have lots of health benefits (below). In other countries, especially in Asia, large radishes such as the ‘Beauty Heart’ and mooli radishes are extremely popular and widely grown and eaten but, for ‘us’ these are autumn and winter vegetables – they bolt soon after sowing if sown in summer.

My trouble with summer radishes, the potentially sweet, crisp treats that mature a few weeks after sowing, is that they need sowing little and often and I forget to sow more as the first crop is growing. They also need to be grown fast and in rich, moist soil or they don’t swell. Thinning is also important so they have room to grow. In theory the leaves can be eaten but they are bristly and best used stir-fried, I think. Slugs also like radishes and if you grow them in moist soil they like to feast on the roots – or at least take a small bite out of all of them. They need to be harvested when they are small and sweet or they get tough and pithy in the centre.

So I have fondness for rat’s tail radish, often called Munchen bier. This is probably a primitive form of radish and does not form a tasty root. Instead the plants run to flower quite quickly and produce large seed pods and it is these that are eaten. You can sow them in spring through summer and the plants don’t need high summer temperatures and will withstand some frost. Now, they are not very attractive plants and will flop so really need some support with ‘pea sticks’ or they are likely to flop over. But that is the only negative thing I can say about them. For a start, the simple white or pink flowers are not unattractive and they will attract pollinators, which is good since it is the immature seed pods that we want to harvest. Bees and hoverflies will flock to the flowers. They would make a decent veg for a patio pot – a bit unkempt but good to attract pollinators and to provide a tasty crop just by the back door. They could be easily grown in a large pot of multipurpose compost.

The first pods will be ready to harvest while there are more flowers opening so from a single short row you should get at least a month of harvest. Pick the pods at any stage but don’t let them get too swollen or they will get stringy – though then you can save some of your own seeds. The pods are 8-12cm long, often with half the length narrow without developing seeds – hence the rat’s tail. They are sweet and crunchy, with varying ‘heat’ according to their maturity and how dry the soil is. They are tasty enough to eat off the plant but also great for salads and stir-fries. A short row will give you something to pick every day to brighten up your summer salads. I like them because they are easy to pick (not much bending) and need virtually no preparation. They are a great complement to or alternative for snow peas.

In hot, dry weather not all the flowers set pods but I have never had them fail to produce a crop. There seems to be no agreement as to whether these are German or Asian in origin but I am sure that they must have arisen several times since they are basically a wild radish. I have not tried but I assume that all immature radish seed pods are edible. I have a few beauty heart radish (Asian winter radish) that I ought to leave to see if they form edible pods in spring.

If you want to try an unusual and healthy crop that is easy to grow and provides food over a long period rat’s tail radish may be just what you want.

Nutrition: Radishes are high in Vitamin C along with Vitamin B6 and contain many minerals including magnesium, potassium and iron. Their ‘heat’ indicates that they contain the sulphur compounds, common in brassicas, that are so good for us. They also contain some fibre. The seed pods probably have similar nutritional benefits but probably contain more protein (in the seeds) than root radishes and possibly more fibre. And because they are green, they will contain more chlorophyll. Although they don’t have red skins, like the roots, the chlorophyll should more than make up for that. These comments are just my extrapolations and thoughts.

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3 Comments on “The forgotten radish – rat’s tail”

  1. tonytomeo
    January 27, 2023 at 2:40 am #

    We get a few of these, but I doubt that they are a traditional ‘rat tail’ variety. They grow wild, along with mustard and turnip. There is certainly no shortage of greens, but no turnip or radish roots.

  2. Paddy Tobin
    January 27, 2023 at 9:05 am #

    I must admit to not bothering with the small radishes though I have grown them on many occasions. I recall growing a large white variety – perhaps a mooli?

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