Monday, February 15, 2010

Plant Profile: Brassica oleraceae

By Nina Berryman

You may remember from last week’s feature about turnips that the Brassicaceae family has the largest representation at our farm. Within this family, the species Brassica oleraceae includes the largest number of vegetables. Different vegetables within a plant species can be likened to different races within our species Homo sapien sapien. Different varieties within a vegetable can be likened to different regional differences within an ethnic group. Sometimes there is only one common vegetable per plant species, and that species has different varieties; but in the case of Brassica oleraceae, there are many vegetables that actually belong to that same species, and each one has different varieties. The confusion comes about because in the English language we classify certain foods as different vegetables regardless of how closely they are related genetically. This is one reason why I propose using the Latin name for all vegetables on the farm, but no one who I work with seems to agree!

Anyway, getting back to the plant species at hand, Brassica oleraceae is the Latin name for broccoli, brussel sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, collards, kale and kohlrabi! Because they all belong to the same species, they can cross, meaning they can reproduce with one another. The next generation will not be “true”, though, meaning it will not resemble either original plant. This is like two people from different races who can have a child that will not look like either parent. Crosses are rare, but not impossible between plants of different species.

So what does this mean in the garden? If you have kale and collards flowering next to each other, one pollinates the other, you save the seed that is formed and plant it the next year, you are likely to have a collard looking kale, or a kale looking collard. Currently there is one such plant in our kale patch, but I can’t actually vouch for how it came to look that way since we bought the seed from somewhere else.

And now, some fun facts about all those Brassica oleraceae!
• Cabbages are the fourth most produced vegetable in the United States.
• In Italy, the name broccoli originally referred to the flowering shoots of cabbage.
• Prior to the turn of the century, purple broccoli was more common than green broccoli.
• Kales and collards may have been the first cultivated brassicas. The first known reference to kale was written by Cato in 201 B.C.
• Kohlrabi is one of the few vegetables of which the stem is the most coveted part to eat.

Ashworth, Susan. “Seed to Seed.” Seed Savers Exchange, Inc. 2002

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