Radishes as Christmas lights?

When you think about Christmas plants you probably think about holly and ivy, possibly Christmas trees and poinsetties, and maybe even Brussels sprouts and parsnips. But I bet you don’t think about radishes. And yet, the humble radish (Raphanus sativus) plays an important role in the Christmas festivities in Oaxaca, Mexico.

Every year, on December 23rd, they have a Christmas night market. This was traditionally when people bought the food items they would need for Christmas, but since 1897 it has been a very special event – La Noche de las Rábanos, the night of the radishes.

Feliz Navidad les Desea la Familia Oaxaqueña

The townspeople of Oaxaca have developed radish carving into a fine art, and the night market has developed into a fiesta during which more than a hundred radish tableaux are displayed, with everything from the Nativity to the Last Supper carved into radishes. The best display wins a prize of around $1000, and the fiesta brings crowds from across Mexico and beyond. It’s not unusual to have to queue for four or five hours to see these short-lived displays.

Actually, these radishes are not humble at all. They’re not the standard salad radish we all grow so quickly in our summer gardens. These are monsters – up to 50 cm long and weighing in at up to 3 kg. When Oaxaca expanded and consumed all the nearby agricultural land, the city stepped in and took over cultivation of the monster radishes. In 2014 they produced 12 tonnes, distributed to competitors who have to register months in advance. Heavily fertilized, chemically sprayed and left to mature in the ground until just days before the competition, the radishes are overgrown, and have contorted into odd shapes. They are no longer considered suitable for human consumption, but radish tableaux are just the thing to grace Christmas tables as centrepieces.

Native to China, radishes arrived in Mexico with the Spanish missionaries in the 16th century. Native crops were suppressed and devalued by the Spanish as a way of dismantling the indigenous food production systems and the political and social systems they supported, and European crops were popularised instead. Oaxaca has a history of wood carving, and carving radishes was proposed as a natural extension of that. Farmers used intricate radish carvings as marketing devices – attracting customers to their stalls in the market.

Daikon radish (Raphanus sativus var. longipinnatus)

It seems that it was during the 18th century that it became more than that. An over-abundant radish crop was left unharvested until, late in the season, a couple of friars pulled up some plants and discovered that the roots had become massive and misshapen. They selected some that – to their eyes – looked like demons and monsters, and took them to the market to display as curiosities. They attracted such a crowd, and lent themselves to such amazing carvings, that a tradition took hold. Mayor Francisco Vasconcelos saw this as a way to encourage both farming and commerce, and formalized the annual spectacle that we see today.

The carvings were originally made in a radish variety known as El Criollo, a massive, white radish with a long shelf life and a tendency to produce delightfully wonky roots. However, the variety was sadly lost, and without seeds to replant, it had to be replaced. The current variety is red-skinned and white-fleshed, which lends a colourful nuance to the carvings, but which has a softer texture and had necessitated a change in carving techniques.

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Should you wish to attempt your own radish carvings, then you’ll need a monster radish. Forego salad radishes in favour of something more massive – a mooli/ daikon or a winter radish. You’ll have to go a bit off piste in terms of seeds, but not too far. Suttons have a nice selection, for example, that includes the purple Violet de Gournay, a twin pack of long white/ black radishes and the spectacular Mantanghong, which has white skin and pink flesh that will carve up a treat. Feed them well, treat them like plant royalty and leave them in the ground long past their harvest-by-date. Carve them in to decorative centrepieces and enjoy with hot chocolate and buñelos (doughnuts). I can’t imagine anything more Christmassy than that 😉

Of course, a radish is not just for Christmas. Come spring, they will be sown by their thousands as a quick crop, a catch crop, a line marker and a treasured salad vegetable. Personally, I think they taste like mud, and prefer them cooked, but you can eat the whole plant. The leaves are nice as a cooked ‘spinach’ (they’re a little too hairy to eat raw). If they bolt and flower before you’ve had a chance to harvest the roots, then both the flowers and the seed pods that follow are edible (and add a spicy kick to them). You can even harvest and dry the seeds and use them as a mustard-like seasoning – apparently they make a good pickling spice.

Will you be adding a festive radish to next year’s celebrations? 🙂

‘Night of the Radishes’ has been my contribution to the Culham Research Group’s Advent Botany 2015, a peek into the private lives of festive plants. Do click through and have a look at any days you’ve missed – they will surprise and delight you!

References
Godoy, M. (2012) Survived The Mayan Apocalypse? Here Come The Radish People. NPR [Online, accessed 22 December 2015.]

México Desconocido (n.d.) La Noche de Rábanos, una tradición que se renueva, Oaxaca. México Desconocido [Online, accessed 22 December 2015.]

Van Buren, A. (2015) Make Oaxaca’s Night of the Radishes Your Quirky Alternative Christmas Plans. Travel+Leisure [Online, accessed 22 December 2015.]

Wikipedia. (n.d.) Night of the Radishes. Wikipedia. [Online, accessed 22 December 2015.]