Brassica oleracea: Keeping it in the Family

Broccolini on PlateMuch has been written in science, history and cooking on the influence of rice, corn and potatoes, yet the vegetable know by it’s scientific name Brassica oleracea (wild cabbage) is all around us, but few of us realize how often “wild cabbage” is eaten.

Cabbage in a Slow CookerWhen we were in high school and learned about the classifications of animals and plants. Plants and animals are classified scientifically within families and in the plant kingdom there is typically eight classifications. The classifications become narrower and narrower in focus until they define the specific plant with the last two classifications being Genus and Species. Past that you get the the specific Cultivars, Varieties and Hybrids. What makes the Wild Cabbage interesting is that due to the great variety of forms that have naturally evolved there are seven distinctly different cultivar groups, yet all of these cultivars and their subsequent varieties are scientifically the same plant (vegetable).

When former President George Bush Sr. said that he does not like Broccoli, never has liked Broccoli and will never eat Broccoli, I am confident that he has eaten Broccoli, but it looked very different then what he knows.

Broccoli, Cabbage, Cauliflower, Brussels Sprout, Chinese Broccoli are all one in the same. They are all classified as Brassica oleracea, but they are of different cultivars. The scientific world has defined seven cultivars (groups) for Brassica oleracea.

  • Acephala: Kale, Collard Greens
  • Albolabra: Chinese Broccoli (kai-lan)
  • Botrytis: Cauliflower
  • Capitata: Cabbage
  • Gemmifera: Brussels Sprout
  • Gongylodes: Kohlrabi
  • Italica: Broccoli

For one vegetable, it is extremely diverse in the shapes, sizes, color and flavor that it exhibits. One could argue that the tomato is just as diverse with hundreds of tomato cultivars, but with a few exceptions no one would ever confuse a tomato for anything else but a tomato.

There is also the the humorously name Broccolini which is a natural cross between Broccoli and Chinese Broccoli. Also commercially known as Gai Lan or Chinese Kale. This is a very delicate, tender flavored vegetable which I have been using regularly with dinners. I simply steam it for 10 minutes and toss it with salt, olive oil and fresh ground black pepper.

Just when you thought it is all about to make sense, you ask yourself where is the ambiguously named Chinese Cabbage in this list of cultivars for wild cabbage? Interestingly enough, Chinese Cabbage (Bok Choy and Napa Cabbage, two different subspecies) is not classified as a Wild Cabbage (Brassica oleracea). It is classified as Brassica rapa which also includes the subspecies Broccoli Raab / Rapini and Turnip.

In short, Brassica oleracea, the Wild Cabbage in all of it shapes, forms, sizes, colors and too numerous ways to prepare is eaten more often then realized.



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    1 comment

    1. I’m amazed at the whole genus Brassica and the amount of common food that we derive from it, such as Canola oil (rapeseed), neeps (rutabaga) and mustard,

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