Someone asked me the other day if they could eat Broccolini leaves. They wanted to use them in a recipe, some kind of quiche-like tart which called for Kale to add some greenery. The answer was “Of course you can, they are the same thing”. Because ultimately, they are the same plant species. In south-western Europe, sometime in prehistory, people began to eat a plant now known as Brassica oleracea, a tough plant, tolerant of limestone soils and salt laden winds, which stores water in its fleshy leaves to cope with its harsh native habitat. The plant is a good source of vitamins, including vitamin C, and minerals, containing the highest levels of calcium among vegetable sources. The plant used to belong to the family Cruciferae, so called because of the cross-shaped flowers they all possess. The family name was changed relatively recently to Brassicaceae, and includes many edible plants, including Mustard, Turnips & Swedes, and Radishes, to name a few obvious examples.
A browse through the bounty of the Brassicaceae family, Choi Sum, Cauliflower and Daikon radish
But most surprising to me is the variety of “different” vegetables that are all contained within the species B. oleracea. The list includes many favourite, and commonly grown vegies, at least one of which most people would eat weekly, if not daily. Things like Kale, Collard Greens, Borecole, Broccoli, Cauliflower, Cabbage, the misinterpreted Kohl Rabi, and the unfairly maligned Brussels Sprouts all spring from the same source. You can track the origin through their names, which mostly contain a variant of “Cole”. This also gives us the name of the ubiquitous coleslaw, derived from the name for cabbage salad: No cole, no coleslaw. Let me elaborate further by discussing each in detail.
Kale, Collards and Borecole
These plants are probably the most closely related to the original wild species, and are grown for their leaves. They are collectively grouped as B. oleracea var. Acephala, the varietal name indicating they have no head, as a cabbage does. Borecole comes from a Dutch name, Boerenkool, meaning peasant’s cabbage, but genetically these plants are very closely related. This biennial plant (meaning it flowers in its second year of growth) is resistant to frost, and can grow to nearly two metres if left alone.
The currently fashionable Cavallo Nero is really just a variety of Kale. Once regarded as peasant food, now a gourmet vegetable. Some peasant labour is clearly needed in this community garden plot at the Collingwood Children's Farm.
The appearance of some varieties is quite ornamental, and they can easily be hidden amongst flowers in a more ornamental garden, though I am not sure who can justify the time, water, space and effort to grow plants purely for appearance. Some Kales are grown purely for ornamental purposes, and can be found more often in the florist than the greengrocer’s. They have frilly, feathered, brightly coloured purple and white leaves – almost forming Cabbage-like heads in some cases. These are still edible, though the flavour is not great. I suppose like most things, it depends how hungry you are.
One of the most common colour variations in Kale varieties, as well as the other Brassicas, is a purple hue, like this Purple Kale. It usually changes to a blueish colour when cooked.
Kale can be grown pretty much any time of year, and harvested throughout its life cycle. The plants will love a high nitrogen supply, and will probably do better if some liquid fertiliser is applied as they grow. Just remember that the leaves give the plant energy, so if you take them all, recovery will probably be slow, and you may shock the plant into flowering. But you can always cut back the flower heads and keep on gutsing the leaves.
The name Cabbage is possibly a corruption of the Latin for head, caput, referring to the growth of a large ball of leaves in the centre of the plant. This head has been selected over centuries, and is an important food in many parts of the world. In fact, despite being relatively low in energy content, they are high in vitamins and minerals, and remain one of the most grown vegetables. Highest production annually is in China, followed somewhat unsurprisingly by India then the Russian Federation. I have to admit the true Cabbages are among my least favourite of the species. I rarely buy them except with specific recipes in mind, while others I grow all the time or buy routinely, when in season.
The humble Cabbage, growing at the Collingwood Childrens' Farm community garden
There are a huge number of cultivated varieties of cabbage, in numerous shapes, colours and textures, but these are not to be confused with the Asian Cabbages which have often been bred from the related Turnip, or from Mustard. European Cabbages are commonly pickled, such as in sauerkraut, as well as being eaten fresh or cooked in a huge variety of dishes. There are varieties that may be grown all year round, and cut plants will often resprout smaller heads after the main head is removed. The most commonly eaten part is the tightly bound “head” of young, immature leaves, which make the plants compact compared with their close relatives. If left until their second year, a flower stalk will burst through the head, which by this time will be less than palatable, but still technically edible.
Keep sowing a few at a time to avoid a harvest season glut.
Cabbages grow in most places, they will tolerate frost, and grow best at cooler times of year. They like fertile soil in full sun, with plenty of compost and organic fertiliser. They may bolt in hot weather, so harvest as soon as they ready, and plant successively for a continuous supply. This applies to all the Brassicas mentioned here. A few every week is better than a dozen at once come harvest time. They are ready to harvest in 7-14 weeks depending on the variety.
Broccoli, or more specifically B. oleracea var. Italica has been selected, initially in Italy about two thousand years ago, for the flowering stems of the plant. There are numerous varieties, as one would expect, the most common producing large branching flower heads that look like little trees. This similarity may make it easier to get little people to consume this vegetable, and is worth a try if you have trouble in that department. Sing the Lumberjack song while you eat, if it helps. The generally bluish plants are best grown through the winter as hot weather can make them bolt to seed. They will flower eventually if the heads are not harvested, though again most of the plant is edible anyway, including the flowering stems. They will handle frost, and to get the largest possible heads should be planted 40 – 60cm apart, though closer plants will produce smaller heads.
Broccoli can produce very large heads, like this 40cm monster at the Collingwood Children's Farm gardens. Closer planting means smaller heads, which is more useful for smaller households.
It is thought by some to be a cross between heading Cabbage and the Cauliflower, originally, and has been known in Southern Europe since before the Medicis, who took the plant from Italy to France in the 1500s. By the early 1600s it had made its way to England, and it was planted at Norfolk island as early as 1788, making it among the first vegetables from Europe to be grown in the colonies. There are Green and Purple Sprouting Calabrese varieties, which give a continuous supply of shoots after the main harvest, and there are Perennial varieties which can be kept going for months at a time by continuous harvesting of the side shoots.
Broccoflower like this example at the Queen Victoria Market, is an actual cross between Broccoli and Cauliflower, and has the same growing preferences as Broccoli.
Broccoli is probably my personal favourite of this species, and in the garden, they are not only easy to grow, but many varities produce side shoots after the main “head” is removed, providing ongoing broccoli feasts. Most people are aware the stalks are edible, though the larger they are, the tougher they get. I still use the thick main stalks in the kitchen, peeling away the fibrous outer layers of skin and chopping up the softer insides to use in soups and stews. I have even chopped and then frozen the stalks if I didn’t need them straight away. Delicious.
There's some debate about whether the fractal-patterned Romanesco Broccoli is a Cauliflower or a Broccoli, but it can be treated as either.
The vegetable known as Broccolini, Brocoletti or Baby Broccoli is generally the side shoots, developed after the main head is harvested, though some varieties of Broccoli have been selected specifically to provide these smaller shoots.
The curds of the Cauliflower are the most eaten part of the plant, they grow much the same as for Cabbages, but tolerate less heat and frost. Heat particularly will break up the compact heads and induce flowering quickly, though of course they are still edible beyond this point. Again, a continuous planting will result in a continuous supply at harvest. Despite being known in ancient times in the Middle East and North Africa, the Cauliflower didn’t make it to England until the 18th century. Though they were well known in Australia by the early 19th century. There are white, green and purple headed varieties available, so you can be creative with their planting, and they mature in 12-20 weeks, again doing best through the cooler part of the year.
Call me old fashioned, but sometimes I crave Cauliflower in Cheese sauce. Pakora are pretty good, too.
Something of an oddity, the Kohl Rabi is sometimes known as the Turnip Rooted Cabbage, due to the swollen base of the plant. It is in fact the stem that swell, rather than the root, but the Kohl Rabi is treated as a root vegetable nonetheless. It is grown in cooler climates from Spring to Autumn, opposite seasons in warm places. But as it’s mid-winter here, it’s the only type of B. oleracea I could find neither growing nor in the market. The varietal name Gongylodes refers specifically to the “Cabbage Turnip”, if the common name is translated from the original German. Plants must be grown quickly to avoid the swollen stems becoming tough. Several purple tinged varieties are available, but only the skin is pigmented, the edible flesh inside the stem is white or yellowish. The vegetable has a mild cabbage flavour, not unlike Broccoli stems or cauliflower, and is commonly used in stews and soups similar to Turnips, though in North Africa and other places the leaves are commonly eaten also. These cultivars have only been known for a bit over five hundred years.
Possibly the most hated of Cabbages, the Brussels Sprout has a bad reputation especially among children. I say GOOD, that leaves more for me. The Brussels Sprout, or Choux de Bruxelles, was developed some time before the 13th century when the first records appear in Belgian market records. It didn’t make much headway in the English speaking world until a few centuries later later, and probably arrived in Australia late in the 19th century, but remaining obscure until after the Second World War. The plants do best in a cold climate, so are not really suited north of Sydney or along the coast, but are quite happy in Victoria and Tasmania. They were often included in traditional English Christmas dinners, mainly because they, along with Leeks (Allium ampeloprasum) are one of the few things left standing in the garden at that time of year. Many gardeners will insist that a good frost (or a snowfall) will improve their flavour, but in the cities of Australia, that occurrence is increasingly unlikely. They are planted in late Summer or Autumn, and harvested 12 – 20 weeks later, depending on the variety and the season. The plants need a fair amount of space, and grow quite tall, the sprouts themselves forming along the leaf axils, and may need staking especially in shallow or loose soils. Some popular old varieties to look for are Long Island Improved, an old standard non-hybrid variety, and Ruby Red, which as the name suggests will add some colour to the already interesting looking plants.
Not all that popular among inner city growers, probably because they take up a lot of space for a relatively long time. People still want to eat them, though, Brussels Sprouts for sale at the Richmond market with Broccolini
A particular pest: The Cabbage White Butterfly
I’ve already written about the major pest of this species, the prolific and devastating Cabbage White Butterfly (Pieris rapae). They can wipe out a crop of Brassicas in a couple of days, especially when young, and seem to be more of an issue than the other big garden pest snails and slugs.