Brassica oleracea L. (Brassicaceae)



Page of cultivated cabbages from Robert Morison's 'Historia Plantarum Oxoniensis' (1680, sect.3, tab.1). Cabbages in Oxford Botanic garden and a vertical section through Brussels sprout.

Europeans have lived off cabbage for centuries. As cabbage moved out of its native home in the Mediterranean, different cultures selected different features of the plant and diverse forms were generated. In 1648, Jacob Bobart the Elder was growing many cultivated cabbages in the Oxford Botanic Garden, including 'White Cabbage Colewort', 'Coleflower', 'Savoy Cabbage', 'Common Colewort' and 'Parsly Colewort', together with 'Wild Colewort' and 'Sea Colewort'. By 1658, 'Red Cabbage' was on the menu.

These diverse cabbage forms are all derived from wild cabbage through artificial selection of particular features. In the kales and headed cabbages variation in internode length produces plants with loosely or tightly packed heads. The cauliflowers and broccolis have thickened, undeveloped flowers and flower stalks. Kohlrabi has a grossly enlarged stem, whilst brussels sprouts have greatly expanded buds. One year after Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species, researchers at Cirencester Agricultural College used simple selection experiments to breed broccoli, and other cabbage-like forms, from the wild cabbage found on the English coast.

Kales are the most ancient cultivated cabbage forms. Until the mid-eighteenth century, cabbages generally, and kales particularly, were known in England under their Anglo-Saxon name 'colewort'. However, kales are not well suited to the cool conditions of northern Europe, where cold-tolerant, headed cabbages were selected. Classical authors do not mention headed cabbages and there are only ambiguous references in the mediaeval European literature. By 1536, the French botanist Jean Ruel gives an unmistakable description of a white, headed cabbage. The western migration of headed cabbage from Europe started in 1541, and by 1669, it was growing in the English Colonies of the United States.

In England, Pliny's sprouting broccoli was not grown until the early-eighteenth century. However, the cauliflower is an ancient cultivated form. Spanish cauliflower cultivars from the twelfth century were considered as Syrian introductions, and its cultivation described by sixteenth-century travellers in Turkey and Egypt. Cauliflowers (Cyprus coleworts ) were rare in sixteenth-century England, but by the early-seventeenth century they were common in London markets.

In contrast, kohlrabi and sprouts have been developed much more recently. The first description of kohlrabi was made by the Italian botanist Pier Andrea Mattioli in 1554, but it was not grown extensively in England until the late-nineteenth century. Today, sprouts are commonplace but they were not described until 1587, and even in the seventeenth-century English botanists had heard of sprouts but rarely seen them.

Further reading

Bloch-Dano E 2013. Vegetables. A biography. The University of Chicago Press.

Dixon GR 2007. Vegetable brassicas and related crucifers. CABI.

Stephen Harris