Cabbage Flowers for Food

Broccoli and cauliflower are two more kinds of Brassica oleracea, so similar that both are designated as botanical variety botrytis, from a Greek word meaning a cluster like a bunch of grapes.

"Broccoli" is an Italian word taken from the Latin brachium, meaning an arm or branch. "Cauliflower" comes from the Latin terms caulis (cabbage) and floris (flower). These "cabbages" are grown for their thickened, profuse, undeveloped flowers and flower stalks instead of for their leaves.

Broccoli has two distinct forms. One makes a dense, white "curd" like that of cauliflower and is called "heading broccoli" or "cauliflower broccoli." The other makes a somewhat branching cluster of green flower buds atop a thick, green flower stalk two to two and a half feet tall, and smaller clusters that arise like "sprouts" from the stems at the attachments of the leaves. This form is called "sprouting broccoli."

Some years ago an observant gentleman came into my office to discuss the origin of sprouting broccoli. He insisted firmly that it must be the result of a cross between cabbage and asparagus, because it had the flavor of cabbage and the fleshy stem of asparagus!

Apparently this gentleman had never seen cabbage plants push up their flower stalks, else he would have realized that the developing flower stalk of cabbage and of sprouting broccoli are botanically the same thing. Neither did he realize that cabbage and asparagus are much too distantly related to hybridize.

In 1860, at the Cirencester Agricultural College in southern England, the wild cabbage from the seacoast was subjected to simple breeding and selection procedures. From these wild plants, which resembled crude kales, forms of broccoli and other related cabbagelike varieties were developed, demonstrating their common ancestry.

Broccoli Increasingly Popular in America

Like the other forms of B. oleracea, the parent type of these cabbages is native to the Mediterranean and Asia Minor. The Romans grew sprouting broccoli and prized it highly, according to Pliny, in the 2nd century after Christ. This is the same, form that has remained popular in Italy.

Despite its antiquity, sprouting broccoli apparently was unknown in England until about 1720, when it was introduced as "sprout cauliflower" or "Italian asparagus''. "Green" broccoli, which was doubtless the sprouting form, was mentioned in an American book on gardening in 1806, but it must have been known here for many years before that.

It is surprising that such an excellent vegetable as sprouting broccoli, known for more than 2,000 years in Europe and perhaps 200 years in America, should have become popular here only in the past 25 years. Americans of Italian origin had grown it for generations in the vicinity of New York and Boston before Americans generally appreciated its attractive qualities. Since 1925 it has suddenly become an important market and home-garden plant in the United States. It is also being grown for quick-freezing.

We occasionally see another "sprouting" type in this country, called raab or broccoli raab, which is entirely different from the true Italian sprouting broccoli. A low-growing little plant with turniplike foliage, it should not be confused with broccoli of B. oleracea.

Aristocrats of the Cabbage Clan

Cauliflower and cauliflower broccoli have much the same early history as sprouting broccoli. The oldest record of cauliflower dates back to the 6th century B.C. Pliny wrote about it in the 2nd century after Christ. In the 12th century three varieties were described in Spain as introductions from Syria, where it had doubtless been grown for more than a thousand years.

Cauliflower in Turkey and Egypt was mentioned in the 16th century by European writers, but it had been certainly known in those places for 1,500 to 2,000 years or more. In England in 1586 cauliflower was referred to as "Cyprus coleworts," suggesting recent introduction from the island of Cyprus. For some time thereafter, Cyprus was mentioned as the source of seed for planting in England. Cauliflower was an item on the London vegetable market as early as 1619. It was grown in France around 1600.

A hundred years ago, as many as a dozen varieties were listed in American catalogues, as many as are commonly listed today.

Cauliflower and cauliflower broccoli appear alike. In fact, "winter cauliflower" on our markets is cauliflower broccoli, hardier and slower-growing than cauliflower.

Most varieties of cauliflower and cauliflower broccoli are sensitive to climate, requiring cool temperature with moist air. In India, however, where the plant was introduced long ago, heat-tolerant types have been developed.

The sensitivity, difficulty of culture, and relatively high price of the cauliflowers have made them the true aristocrats of the cabbage family. Some wag has defined cauliflower as "a cabbage with a college education."