Of Cabbages and Celts

The word "cabbage" is an Anglicized form of the French caboche, meaning "head." It has been used, loosely, to refer to loose-heading (or even nonheading) forms of Brassica oleracea as well as to the modern hard-heading type classified as B. oleracea variety capitata.

The Celts of central and western Europe had much to do with the distribution and popularization of cabbage as a food plant. Although the evidence points to the eastern Mediterranean and Asia Minor as the place of origin of the species, Celtic knowledge of it was so ancient as to have influenced the Latin name, Brassica (from the Celtic word bresic, meaning "cabbage").

Introduction of "cabbage" into Europe has been generally ascribed to the Romans, but it seems probable that the Celts introduced it even earlier. The Celts invaded Mediterranean lands repeatedly from about 600 B.C. to the beginning of the Christian Era, reaching into Asia Minor around 278 B.C. They also reached into the British Isles in the fourth century B.C. Shortly before the beginning of the Christian Era the Romans spread into northern Europe and into Britain.

In view of those movements, it is not surprising that the history of the development of the cabbagelike group of vegetables has been confused between the Mediterranean or Asia Minor, on the one hand, and northern and western Europe on the other.

Most of the European and Asiatic names for cabbage can be traced to one of three Celtic or part-Celtic root words. Kopf Kohl (German), cabus and caboche (French), cabbage (English), kappes, kraut, kapost (Tartar), kopi (Hindu), and others, all are related to the Celto-Slavic cap or kap, meaning "head." Kaulion (Greek), caulis (Latin), kale (Scottish), kaal (Norwegian), kohl (Swedish), col (Spanish), are related to the Celto-Germanic-Greek caul, meaning "stem."

Hard-beading Kinds Unknown to Romans

In southern Europe, Mediterranean peoples developed those forms of cabbage that are tolerant to warm climates (not hard-heading); the hard-heading cabbages were developed in the cooler parts of Europe by peoples largely Celtic, Nordic, or of mixed blood and culture involving Celtic or Nordic peoples. Had there been a hard-heading variety in ancient Rome, it certainly would have attracted enough interest for the old Roman writers to have described it.

"White" (hard-heading) cabbages were apparently unknown until after the time of Charlemagne, who died A.D. 814. Albert of Cologne, in the 13th century, referred to a headed cabbage, and in 14th-century England the words cabaches and caboches were used, indicating then a distinction between heading and nonheading cabbages (coleworts).

It was not until 1536 in Europe that unmistakably clear descriptions of hard-heading cabbage were recorded. At that time also a loose-heading form called romanos, and later called chou d'Italie and chou de Savoys, for the Italian province, was described. This "savoy cabbage," a crumpled-leaved kind having high quality, was grown in England in the 1500's.

Cartier Brought Cabbage to America

Cabbage was introduced to America in 1541-42 by Jacques Cartier, who planted it in Canada on his third voyage. Because of its popularity among Europeans, it was doubtless planted in what is now the United States by some of the earliest colonists, although there is no written record of it until 1669. In the 18th century it was being grown by American Indians as well as by the colonists.

Hard-heading cabbage was unobserved in Japan as late as 1775. It is believed to have found its way eastward in comparatively recent times and is still of minor importance in the Orient. There are no Sanskrit or other ancient Eastern language names to indicate that it has been long in the Orient.

The round-headed form is the oldest of the hard types of cabbage and is the only one described during the 16th century. In the 17th century, flat-headed and egg-shaped varieties appeared, and in the 18th century conical or pointed kinds were first described.

Germany, France, and the Low Countries were by far the most productive of new varieties. Most of the varieties grown in the United States even today originated in Germany and the Low Countries.

"Red" cabbage (magenta to purplish) was first described in England in 1570, all of the early varieties being round-headed. Now there are red varieties of all the various head shapes. The "red" color is confined to the "skin" of each leaf and stem, the cells beneath possessing normal green or white color. When cut before cooking, a head of red cabbage presents a pretty contrast of red and white.

Savoy-leaved and red cabbages are little grown in the United States. Red varieties, however, are popular in northern Europe and savoyed varieties in the warmer parts of Europe. Most cabbage grown in this country is of the smooth-leaved green or white kind.