TURNIP (Pers. šalḡam; Arabicized šaljam), Brassica rapa L. vars., a biennial shrub of the Cruciferae family with edible fleshy thick root, hairy rosette leaves, grape inflorescence and siliques fruits (Moẓaffariān, p. 179; Ṭabāṭabāʾi, I, p. 560; Zargarī, Ⅰ, p. 236, uses Brassica napus [see below] for turnip). Ian Hedge and Karl Rechinger (p. 36) mention Iran (Māzandarān and Baluchistān), Afghanistan (Kabul, Badaḵšān, Fayżābād, and Bāmiān), and Pakistan (Chitral) as its natural habitats. 

There are many varieties of turnip, differing in size, form, and color, that are cultivated in Persia throughout the year (for some, see Ṭabāṭabāʾi, I, pp. 565-70).  The Persian turnip is cultivated everywhere in Persia and eaten raw (with salt and lemon juice) or in some culinary uses, for instance, āš-e šalḡam, a kind of pottage made with vegetables, grains, beans, rice, and numerous pieces of turnip root (Ṭabāṭabāʾi, pp. 560, 565; for its use in other varieties of āš, see Nur-Allāh, pp. 242, 243, 245, 246; Āšpaz-bāši, p. 32).

Persian and Arabic nomenclature. Besides the word šalḡam for turnip, other Persian terms, mainly dialectical variations, include baršād, šalam, šilam, and a few obsolete, metathesized forms such as šalmak/šamlak (Enju Širāzi, Ⅱ, p. 1627; ʿAqili Ḵorāsāni, p. 552; Awbahi Heravi, p. 216; Moqim Tuyserkāni, p. 298; Aḵawayni Boḵārāʾi, pp. 157, 510; Ḥāʾeri Ardakāni, p. 145); these are said to be synonyms with Arabic left “rape” (Lane, VII, p. 2665; Laufer, pp. 380-81), derived from  Akkadian laptu “turnip” (CAD IX, p. 96; cf. Aramaic lefto; Sallum, pp. 64-65, 105).  The term labu, used in Persian for cooked beet, may have had its origin in the Akkadian term (Purdāvud, p. 30). In old Arabic and Persian books, words such as ʿoqanqol, ḡonqily, ʿonqili, and ʿonqoli, mentioned as Greek terms for turnip (Dioscorides, p. 188; Ebn al-Bayṭār, 1989, p. 180; ʿAqīlī Ḵorāsānī, p. 552), are borrowings of Greek γογγύλη.  Also, boniasουνιάς, believed to be Brassica napus, rape) is referred to as a small turnip (Dioscorides, p. 189).

The turnip is mentioned in classical Persian poetry as a low-level food item: “for someone without means, boiled turnip is equal to a broiled fowl” or “to a poor man scorched in a hot desert, a boiled turnip is of more value than pure silver (Saʿdi, pp. 115-16). The compound šalam-šurbā “higgledy-piggledy” (lit. turnip pottage) is used to indicate a confused or disorder condition (see Mošīrī, p. 649; Anwari, Ⅱ, p. 1021; Dehḵodā, s.vv. šalḡam, šalam-šurvā).

History of culture. The earliest mention and the most detailed botanico-agricultural discussion of the turnip in Islamic sources is in al-Felāhat al-nabaṭiya, collected from Chaldaean or old Assyrian books and translated probably by Ebn Waḥšiya (fl. 3rd-4th/9th-10th cents.; for detailed culture conditions about turnip growing in this book, see Ebn al-ʿAwwām, Ⅰ, pp. 543-48).  It also mentions other kinds of turnip and their culture and medicinal properties (I, pp. 548-52).  These are probably the different species of Brassica.  Concerning turnip culture, Ebn al-ʿAwwām (II, pp. 171-76) recommends that the distance between seedlings must be three spans, and the farmer must irrigate the seedlings twice a week.

Rašīd-al-Din Fażl-Allāh (d. 718/1318), the historian of the Il-khanid period, who was also interested in horticulture, notes concerning some vegetables such as turnip that, if several seeds are planted in the same hole, larger roots will be produced; he also recommends that its fresh root be kept under the mud (pp. 198-99).  Abunaṣri Heravi (fl. 9th-10th/16th cent.) mentions Virgo (Sonbola), the last month of summer, as the best time for planting turnip, which will then ripen in two months, in Scorpius (ʿAqrab; pp. 148-49).  According to Berthold Laufer (pp. 199, 381), Persians were active in disseminating species of Brassica and Raphanus to Tibet, the Turks, and Mongolia; Brassica rapa was introduced into China by the Turkish tribes of Mongolia under the later Han dynasty, and it would be reasonable to conclude that they had previously received the cultivation from Iranians (Laufer, pp. 199, 381).

Medical uses. The root and seeds of turnip were believed to have medicinal properties.  Most of the uses attributed to turnip in traditional (Galenic) medicine in the Islamic period (see, e.g., Ebn al-Bayṭār, 1989, s.v.; ʿAqili Ḵorāsāni, pp. 552-53) can essentially be traced back to Greek sources.  According to Dioscorides (p. 188), the root of turnip is nutritive and stimulates sexual desire.  The warm, compressed (naṭul) poultice of its root is useful against gout and schism caused by frostbite.  The cooked turnip leaves are diuretic, and its seeds, with other drugs, are alexipharmic and quench the poisonous effect caused by drugs.  He also mentions other kinds of turnip, including wild turnip and boniās with their medicinal effects:  (1) Wild turnip (šaljam-e barri) is a shrub with many branches and the length of about one cubit.  Its leaves may grow as wide as the thumb of a man or even wider.  Its seeds, mixed with other powdered seeds, are used for the treatment of small pimples (Dioscorides, pp. 188-89; also apud Ebn Sinā, Ⅰ, bk. 2, p. 743). (2) Boniās (Brassica napus) is a small turnip with less nutritious qualities than turnip; its cooked root causes flatulence and counteracts poisons (Dioscorides, p. 189; for probable scientific names of this plants, see Ebn al-Bayṭār, 1989, p. 180 and notes 95-96). The seeds are said to stimulate sexual desire (Galen, apud Rāzi, XXI, p. 103).  According to Galen, cooking it with fat meat is more nutritive than with water and salt (apud Ebn Sinā, Ⅰ, bk. 2, p. 743; Ebn Waḥšiya, Ⅰ, p. 546, noting that the ancient Persians used to cook meat in turnip juice).

Medicinal applications of turnip mentioned in the works of Dioscorides and Galen may be detected also in the Traditions attributed to the prophet and Imams (e.g., ʿAqili Ḵorāsāni, p. 553).  For instance, according to Barqi (Ⅱ, pp. 333-34), turnip was recommended by Imam Ḥosayn b. ʿAli for the treatment of leprosy (joḏām).  Some of these uses are still practiced, with variations and additions.  The earliest mention of these properties in Persian is the succinct account by ʿAli b. Sahl Ṭabari (comp. 236/850; p. 378), who reports that “the turnip is hot and moist and its cooked softens the chest and increases [the production of] the semen” (cf. ʿAqili Ḵorāsāni, pp. 552-53).

According to some traditional physicians such as Ḥakim Maysari (4th/10th cent.), the powdered seeds of turnip mixed with seeds of radish, carrot, etc., increase the secretion of milk (pp. 333-34), and its ointment quenches chilblain (p. 207).  Abu Manṣur Mowaffaq Heravi (fl. ca. 370-80/980-90), author of one of the oldest known medical treatises in Persian, added some details to Maysari’s description and remarked that it is the hot nature of turnip that makes it an effective means of treatment against frostbite and gouts caused by cold; it is also diuretic (Mowaffaq Heravi, pp. 198-99; see also his contemporary Aḵawayni Boḵārāʾi, pp. 157, 510; Ebn Waḥšiya, Ⅰ, pp. 543-48; Rāzī, XXI, p. 103).  Ebn Sinā (Ⅰ, bk. 2, p. 743) prescribes its cooked root in plaster for the treatment of gout and its cooked or raw root for improving the eyesight.  The moisture caused by turnip led some authors (e.g., Sayyed Esmāʿil Jorjāni) to consider it harmful for colic persons, so it must be mixed with carrot, pennyroyal, and other hot plants, but moderated with oxymel (sekanjabin) for hot-tempered (maḥrur) persons. 

Jorjāni reckons the root and seeds of turnip among emetic drugs (Jorjāni, 2002, pp. 22, 23; idem, 2001-05, II, pp. 39, 40, 44, 50, 59-60, 61, 149, 151, 289).  Ḡassāni (p. 267) specifies that selq (beetroot: Beta vulgaris L.) and sadāb (rue: Ruta spp.) are used as substitutes for turnip.  Anṭāki (Ⅰ, p. 247) remarks that the seeds of turnip are useful for [renal and vesicular] calculi.  It is also a poultice against edema, and its oil is good for weakness treatment (see also Ebn al-Bayṭār, 1874, Ⅲ, p. 68; Ḡassāni, p. 270; Anṣāri Šīrāzī, pp. 256-57; Ḥakim Moʾmen, p. 167; for a detailed account of accumulated knowledge about the turnip in traditional [post-Galenic] medicine in Persian in India, see ʿAqili Ḵorāsāni, pp. 552-53). Moḵber-al-Salṭana Hedāyat (p. 36) recorded a remembrance about its use for edema.  Most of its medicinal properties have fallen into disuse, but some of them conform to modern medicine as diuretic, dissolver for urine salts, laxative, and useful for gout and inflammation (see Zargari, Ⅰ, pp. 237-39).


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(Shamameh Mohammadifar)

Originally Published: January 1, 2000

Last Updated: October 29, 2015

Cite this entry:

Shamameh Mohammadifar, “TURNIP,” Encyclopædia Iranicaonline edition, 2015, available at http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/turnip (accessed on 29 October 2015).