Growing up, our Halloween lanterns were made not from pumpkins— which we didn’t have in Scotland in the 1970s—but from the turnips that my father grew. My husband loves this story, seeing it as an example of bleak Scottish determination: to carve out the flesh of cold, hard turnips purely for entertainment. But of course, there was more to it than that.
The Halloween turnip lantern has its origins in the ancient Celtic celebration of Samhain. Held in late October, it marked the end of the Celtic year, the end of crop harvest and the changeover to winter. It was believed that at Samhain, the divide between the worlds of the living and the dead opened up for a night. Bonfires were burned to ward off any emerging evil spirits, and carved turnip lanterns were used to carry embers from the bonfire to the homestead to ensure warmth through the long winter.
As children, we carried the descendants of these ancient turnip lanterns as we went round the neighbors each Halloween “guising,” a Scottish version of trick or treat.
Unfortunately, many turnips I see at the market here are much smaller than the “Swedes” I knew as a child, so the whole idea of a turnip lantern is lost in translation. Carving out a large Swede was tough going, requiring advanced knife skills so as not to lose a finger. My parents would scoop out the hard flesh and carve a rudimentary ghoulish face.
The turnip would slowly come alive – first one eye, then the other, then a cackling mouth – sometimes a nose, and for the more talented carvers, teeth. Our turnips were then candlelit from within and a string handle attached. Unlit on the kitchen table the turnip lanterns appeared to be watching us. Illuminated, they could be quite terrifying. Nowadays, pumpkins have crossed the Atlantic, and British kids make lanterns with kid-proof carving kits using templates for cheerful faces and even cartoon characters.
The ancient turnip lantern is likely affronted by this development. During our first fall of living in Florida in North Berkshire County, signs popped up along Route 2 urging drivers to “buy your Florida Mountain Turnips.”
At 2,000 feet in elevation, Florida has a short growing season for most vegetables. But Florida Mountain Turnips, which come from a seed stock called Laurentian Purple Top Rutabagas, apparently embrace and thrive in the mountain climate. They should not be picked until after at least one frost, when the flesh becomes deep orange and sweet. The longer the turnip is in the cold ground, the better it tastes, so they are usually quite large when picked.
The turnips are a metaphor for life on the mountain: It isn’t always easy up here, but it is worth it. Only a few families, who have been growing for many generations, sell true Florida Mountain Turnips. They are bought by locals and tourists alike, being a popular holiday side dish. There can be controversy about “impostor” Florida Mountain Turnips being sold locally. Remember: Only a Laurentian Purple Top Rutabaga that has been grown on Florida Mountain is the “real deal.”
Last year we set out to grow our own Florida Mountain Turnips. The year before, I had planted a variety of vegetable seeds, and waited patiently all summer to yield little but a solitary beet (a result aided by my over-weeding practices). So, last year, we decided on seedlings instead, giving the vegetables a head start (and identifiable foliage) when they went in the dirt. But for the turnips we decided on seeds, since it is said that the Florida Mountain Turnip is good partly because the green shoots must fight their way up through the rocky soil and into the light.
I soon learned that Laurentian Purple Top Rutabaga seeds can’t readily be found—at least not by the time I looked for them in February. So, we moved on to Plan B (or Plant B): inexpensive American Purple Top Rutabaga seeds. We knew these wouldn’t produce “true” Florida Mountain Turnips, but some research revealed that the American Rutabaga is related to the Scottish Swede I grew up with!
We planted the seeds, and marked off the area, and I was banned from entering it with any weeding implement.
By mid-summer the seedlings began to yield vegetables. But it was harder to tell with the turnips. Their patch was run amok with green shoots; it was killing me not to go in there and poke around. Then one day in August, my husband called me out to the garden.
“There they are!” he said. And, like an optical illusion, once I picked out the large green leaves, I saw a garden full of turnips! As the weeks passed, some purple tops popped out of the soil, and I was reminded of my dad’s turnip patch.
We resisted picking any until September; when we did, the taste was sweet and the texture was light. Going into fall, the flesh deepened in color, and the flavor matured. By late October the turnips were huge, reminiscent of my Halloween lanterns. In November, after a couple of frosts, we harvested the lot. We were able to enjoy them well into this past spring.
Planning for this year’s garden, we didn’t even debate seeking out those elusive Laurentian seeds. Instead, we went once again with the humble American Purple Top. No, we are not growing “real” Florida Mountain Turnips, but there is no dishonesty: These turnips are not for sale, they are just for us.
And knowing that these turnips are related to my childhood Swedes, I like to think of them as a little bit of Scotland right here in Massachusetts. Watching their purple tops appear, I imagine all of them as carved lanterns—a small ocean of malevolent faces lighting a dark, cold Florida night. Maybe this is a bit ambitious … or just plain old too scary?
This year we’ll leave the turnips in the ground as long as possible so that they are as sweet and delicious as possible. And, if one or two of the biggest turnips do call out to me, I’ll get out my carving knife and bring them to life. After all, like my Celtic ancestors, we need to ward off the evil spirits and ensure that we stay warm in the long, cold Florida winter ahead.
Kim Hunter Schaedle originally hails from Scotland, but now lives in Florida, MA with her husband, Dan and Scottie dog, KatyKoo. A neuroscientist by training, Kim now works at the Austen Riggs Center in Stockbridge, MA. On weekends you will find her skiing in winter, trying to grow vegetables in summer, and knitting handbags year round as her alias, “Miss Boobychops”.