Once they’ve grown into their mature forms and been cut, cleaned up, and displayed in big green bins arugula, kohlrabi, kale, collards, cabbage, radishes, turnips, mustard greens, broccoli, cauliflower, tatsoi, bok choi, radish, broccoli rabe, and hon tsai tai’s unique qualities shine out. In their youth, however, they are almost identical… Which one of these pictures is broccoli (Answer key at the bottom of post)? That’s why even the most seasoned farmers label their seedlings.
As you may have already guessed all of these species are related. They are so closely related, in fact, that they were able to interbreed and produce new species like rutabagas, rapeseed, and Indian mustard that are now important agricultural crops. The great diversity of this plant family is a testament to both genetic flexibility and centuries of human cultivation. In his work ‘Vegetable Brassicas and Related Crucifers’ G.R. Dixon passionately tells us,
‘The quiet mundanity of rural cabbage yards belies the botanical miracles taking place within them by these arch-exponenents of genotypic and phenotypic diversity and flexibility’ (p. vii)
He then goes on to explain the family history of cabbage, detailing the great cross-continental expeditions, multiple marriages, and love children of ancient brassicas. In this post, however, I will overlook internal family matters and talk about what all brassicas share.
A taste test of arugula, mustard greens, and mizuna reveals sharpness or ‘peppery-ness’ to be a brassica trait (disclaimer: the peppercorn plant is not related..it is a tropical tree!). In the mediterranean this peppery flavor gave arugula quite a reputation as an aphrodisiac; Vergil wrote of its enticing qualities and other writers claim that it was forbidden to grow in monasteries. This is in contrast to the more wholesome members of the family, cabbage, broccoli, kale, and many others, which also have a distinct brassica taste but no spice in their nature.
The etmology of the term brassica has been hotly contested at least since the 1700s but all of the stories, true or false, tell us a little more about this prolific plant family. Brassica may come from the celtic word for ‘cabbage’ Bresic which is itself derived from the word praesecare ‘to cut off early.’ With a little help from anthropology, then, we learn that the celts harvested their brassicas for early winter feed and fodder. Brassica might also derive from the greek word ‘to crackle’ referring to the satisfying snap of kale or cabbage leaves pulled from the stem. The possible derivation from the Latin ‘to cut of the head’ seems to refer to the ability of many brassicas, cabbage chief among them, to ‘head up’ like a nice head of lettuce.
And finally ‘brassica’ may come from the greek ‘to devour’ which is not at all surprising considering that brassicas alongside the cereals make up the majority of human food consumption. Once we learn that canola, the source of canola oil and mustard seed, the source of the popular condiment are both brassicas it’s not hard to see how the family has risen to prominence. In Kenya kale is so popular and prolific that it is called sukuma wiki, swahili for ‘to stretch out the week.’ In a similar vein a European variety of kale, rape kale, has earned the nickname ‘hungry gap’ as one of the few vegetables that can grow through an English winter. At Bellair we also rely heavily on brassicas as our tomatoes, eggplants, and peppers peter out with brisk mornings and cooler weather. Our current bounty or beautiful greens, braising mix, baby bok choi, arugula, and tat soi is 100% brassica and proud.
Answer: 1. Canola plant seedlings 2. Broccoli seedlings