|Pacific Northwest||Garden History|
|People, Plants, and Gardens from the Region's Past|
Plants from the PastLocal Plant Makes Good
Historic Public Gardensin British Columbia in Oregon in Washington State About this site Contact
On this pageBeets
Long before anyone started keeping official records, Northwest gardeners were super-sizing their vegetables, growing some that were whoppers even by modern standards. Think of it--a potato in Oregon weighed 11 pounds and in 1896, a turnip in Washington weighed an astonishing 38 pounds. Surprisingly, there were plenty of other giant vegetables. Some won prizes at fairs and expositions. Others caught the attention of various writers. Still others got their pictures in newspapers, on postcards, and in advertising brochures.
Some have dismissed these champion giant vegetables as exaggerations or frauds, but there are reasons to believe the accounts are true. For starters, the people who wrote about them were reliable sources -- ministers, explorers, historians, newspaper editors, and writers whose other observations have proved accurate. Secondly, many accounts include details to help prove they are true. Many images, for example, include a baby, ruler, or a silver dollar for scale. And then there's the sheer number of these accounts. Writers all over the West described jumbo vegetables. Apparently, five-pound spuds were not all that rare. Neither were some other eye-popping giants.
So why did these huge vegetables get so much attention? In part, they were curiosities. One newspaper editor even compared them to a circus side-show. More importantly, they were proof positive that the Pacific Northwest was a horticultural Eden. In the days before synthetic fertilizers, soil so deep and rich that it could produce a vegetable giant was rare. Farmers elsewhere would try to work lands that were too poor or thin, in areas too dry or wet, in climates too hot or cold. They would go broke, move on, or starve. Anyone who read about the Northwest's vegetable giants or saw pictures of them would recognize the region's potential. Boosters knew what these giant vegetables meant, and they used giant vegetables to promote the region.
While the information on this page profiles vegetable giants from the Pacific Northwest, the region also produced giant fruits, including outsized apples, cherries, pears, gooseberries, and strawberries. Although growers sometimes used giant varieties and special growing techniques to produce jumbo fruits and berries, some of these giants were spontaneous flukes of nature. Northwest farmers also grew some very tall and very productive grains, including oats eight feet tall. Northwest growers are not likely to see fields of chest-high grain again, since crop scientists have developed compact varieties that have replaced the tall varieties. As time allows, I may add fruits, berries, and grains to this page. For now, I offer, for your amusement, edification, and delight, giant vegetables from the Pacific Northwest.
37 inches circumference
Weight: 25 pounds. Size: 37 inches in diameter. Raised by a Mr. T. Chambers near Olympia, WA in 1854. The editor of the Columbian challenged his readers to find a bigger one, writing "If any person can beet that, we are beet !"
Weight: 13.75 pounds. Raised by the Reverend Mr. Edward Evans Parrish, Marion County, Oregon, in 1846 or 47.
Oregon Trail pioneer Mary M. Colby, in a letter she wrote from Marion County, OR in 1852, reported, "vegitables grow verry large here...beats as large round as my waist...are not them bumpers it is a fact for I saw the beats when growing..."
54 inch circumference
South Puget Sound
Note: In the
nineteenth-century, cabbage was far more difficult to grow than
it is today. In the days before plant breeders introduced
reliable "sure-heading" varieties, cabbage might produce a solid
head, and then again, it might just be a clutch of loose leaves.
Because cabbage was so unpredictable, giant heads were even more
impressive then than they are now.
Weight: 27.5 pounds. Size: 54 inches in circumference. Raised by unidentified grower, probably in the South Puget Sound area.
Weight: 22 pounds. Size: 52" in circumference. Raised by Mr. Bennett from Nisqually in 1886.
2 feet long
18 inch circumference
Note: During the late 1800s, seedsmen offered several very large carrots. One of them which is still available is the "Long Orange." It typically grew 12 to 15 inches long. Under ideal conditions, it could be, as seedsman Henry Maule succinctly put it in 1890, "enormous." Other varieties, like the 'Long Red Belgium' which has since been lost, grew 20 inches long. Such carrots were called "cattle carrots" or "fodder carrots". They were woody at maturity, and were used to feed livestock.
Size: two feet long, 18 inches in circumference. Grown in 1892 by Mr. S. Abbott of Coupeville, Washington.
Walla Walla, WA
Weight: 8 pounds. Grown by Winfield Offner of Walla Walla, Washington in 1900 and exhibited at the Spokane Fair.
Note: Since horticulture
had not yet developed head lettuce, this was a loose-leaf
Size: 81 inches in circumference. Grown in 1791 by Pedro Alberni at Nootka Sound on Vancouver Island, as reported by Allesandro Malaspina, an Italian explorer: "As regards vegetables …we will lack nothing when we give assurance that we have seen …lettuces of nine spans in the upper part of the leaves."
Fort Walla Walla, WA
Length: 18 inches. Diameter: 15 inches at the small end, 19 inches at the large end. Described by Narcissa Whitman as "The finest I think I ever saw or tasted."
Linn County, OR
Weight: 3.5 pounds. Raised by J. R. Douglas of Linn County, Oregon and exhibited at the Oregon State Fair in Salem.
Weight: one pound, 10 ounces. Size: 17 inches in diameter. Raised by Dr. William Fraser Tolmie at Fort Nisqually near Tacoma, WA in 1852. Challenging Oregon's reputation as an agricultural Eden, the editor wrote "Northern Oregon [now Washington] can't grow anything, hey? Will the Willamette people please to beat it?"
near Colfax, WA
Length: 4.75 feet. Grown by T. Kennedy near Colfax c1900.
Weight: 11 pounds! Think of it—this one potato would more than fill a 10-pound bag. Not much more is known about this potato, only that it was reported by Charles Stevens of Milwaukie, Oregon. This lunker is so big that historians will want more evidence before recognizing this potato as the region's biggest spud ever.
Weight: 8-3/4 pound. H. A. Kinne of Sunnyside, Washington raised this 'Netted Gem' in 1910.
Weight: 5 pounds. Raised by J. R. Hapley of Juliette, Idaho in 1909. Hapley actually raised several 5-pounders that year, each one big enough to fill the familiar five-pound bags of spuds sold at grocery stores today.
Note: Although gardeners
of the day had access to several winter radishes that grow very
large, including 'China Rose' and 'Black Spanish,' this appears
to be an ordinary radishes grown to extraordinary size.
Weight: 2.5 pounds. Size: 17" in circumference. Grown in 1891 by O. E. Keith from Palouse, Washington.
This one grew to record size in just two months or so, as the editor reported, "The radish has come up and grown to this enormous size since the rains in June."
Note: Nineteenth century
seed companies of the day noted that the "Mammoth Chili," a
variety which has since been lost, was the biggest squash.
Philadelphia seedsman H. G. Faust's 1889 catalog noted that these
squash could grow to "...the most astonishing weights..."
offering as proof an 292 pound specimen. By these standards,
squash from the Northwest were puny, a situation modern growers
Weight: 862.5 pounds. Grown by Brett Hester from Carnation, WA in 1999.
"And now comes the Owyhee Avalanche ...declaring that one [squash] is on exhibition in its town which weighs one hundred and six pounds."
Describing the Pomological Convention in 1858, George H. Himes reported, "Among the exhibits there was...a squash which weighed 104¼ pounds."
Size: 16-1/3 feet tall. Grown by a Mrs. Kemper in Toppenish, Washington.
Size: 55 inches in circumference (roughly 17.5 inches in diameter). Grown by John Henry Wilson, of Wallowa, Oregon in 1909. The plant itself grew 11 feet tall, a foot higher than a basketball hoop. By the way, he grew this sunflower without irrigation.
Note: In the 1880s,
Eastern Washington farmers were experimenting with sweet
potatoes, and grew some whoppers. At Orondo north of Wenatchee,
for example, several farmers grew 7 pounders in 1891. While
northwest-grown sweet potatoes may have been large, they were not
nearly as sweet as those grown in the south, one of the reasons
sweet potatoes are not more widely grown in the region
Weight: 20 pounds. Grown by Mr. Robert Neal near Davenport, Washington in 1889. It was as big as a pumpkin, or so one observer noted.
Weight: 13 pounds. Size: a foot long and eight inches in diameter, described by an editor as "by no means small potatoes." Grown by a Mr. Neil (probably the same Mr. Neal mentioned above) in Columbia Valley in 1889.
17.5 inch circumference
Hood River, OR
Note: This tomato was a
variety called "Taylor Special," developed by the grower Carl
Taylor. He reported that his plants were setting other very large
tomatoes, and "...predicted that some specimens will be larger
than the one exhibited."
Weight: 1.75 pounds (28 ounces), 17.5 inches in circumference. Grown in 1924 by Carl Taylor of Hood River, Oregon.
60 inches circumference
Size: 60 inches in circumference. Weight: 34 pounds. Grown by J. C. Miller of Glencoe, Oregon in 1901.
Size: 54 inches in circumference. Grown by James John, Tualatin Plains, Oregon in 1843.
Size: 33 inches in circumference. Weight: 15½ pounds. Grown by the Astorians near Astoria, Oregon in 1811.
Weight: 38 pounds. Grown by an unidentified gardener in 1896, probably near Olympia, Washington.
Weight: 36 pounds. Described as "mammoth," grown by George Bush in Thurston County, WA in 1858. That same year, Bush also grew a 26 pound turnip.
Weight: 35 pounds. Grown in 1853 by Capt. L. M. Collins on the Duwamish River just south of Seattle, WA. That same year, Collins also grew a 23 pound turnip, potatoes that weighed up to 4 pounds each, and what the Columbian's editor called "a half bushel of the finest onions we ever saw."
Oregon Trail pioneer Mary M. Colby, who settled in Marion County, OR reported "...turnips as large as a half bushell..." in 1852.