Broccoli (Brassica oleracea — Italica group, literally meaning “from Italy”)
Another very healthy vegetable to eat, broccoli takes its name from the Italian words piccoli bracci, meaning “little arms.” Broccoli has quite a few close relatives and variations, and these are designated in botany by the use of “cultivar groups.” Kale and collards, Chinese broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, and kohlrabi all share the Latin name B. oleracea, but belong to different groups within that single species. Broccoli itself has several varieties: The most common you’re likely to see in grocery stores is called Calabrese in the UK, and just “broccoli” here in North America. There are also sprouting broccoli, Romanesco broccoli (technically a cauliflower), raab (or rapini), and purple cauliflower—which is actually a broccoli. Confusion abounds for the beginner gardener, and lingers for the expert!
Various of these have been grown in Italy for more than 2,000 years. Calabrese broccoli is a green plant with a large, single flower head growing from a thick, edible, meaty stalk, and surrounded by large leaves. It is an amazingly versatile foodstuff and can be prepared lots of different ways or eaten raw. Sprouts from broccoli seeds are also popular, and extremely healthy eating.
However it’s prepared, the nutritional values of broccoli are significant. High in vitamins A, C, and K, and rich in dietary fibre, broccoli also contains numerous anti-cancer compounds such as sulforaphane. Diets high in broccoli are thought to reduce the risk of aggressive colon cancer, increase innate immune response, and provide anti-viral and anti-bacterial agents.
Gai lan (also spelled gailan, gai laan, kai lan) is a close relative of broccoli that is sold as Chinese broccoli or Chinese kale, depending on the market. It is a fast growing version of B. oleracea that produces broccoli-like stems with small flower buds that are sweet and succulent. The sharp tasting , blue-green leaves of this plant are sometimes used raw or stir-fried, or the whole stem, including leaves and flower buds, are cooked — often with oyster sauce, which seems to accentuate the flavour. Gai lan is easy to grow, and enjoys cool weather. The trick is to catch it before the flowers begin to open, when they are at their peak.
Broccolini is a cross between true broccoli and gai lan, although it is sometimes mis-identified as young broccoli. This plant forms heads similar in size to gai lan, but each made up of slightly larger individual buds. The flavour is a little bit sweeter than gai lan, but the texture and other culinary qualities are very similar. At the time of writing, broccolini is still held under patent, and is not widely offered on the seed market.
Broccoli raab, or rapini (or broccoli di rapa as it is known in Italy), has a similar growth form to gai lan — never forming a large flower head, but rather sending up spikes with smaller bunches of buds. This is actually a kind of turnip (Brassica rapa) and not a true broccoli. Raab is another cool-season variation, and it works best from direct sowing. The flavour is somewhat more bitter than regular broccoli, but it’s a nice, easy-to-grow addition to almost any meal, and it packs all the nutrients of regular calabrese broccoli.
Sprouting broccoli varieties are bred to produce smaller heads, but in great abundance, most often for harvest over winter and in early spring. The smallish heads may be green, purple, white, or red, and once more, after they are initially cut, the plants send up numerous smaller shoots that are just as tasty and nutritious.
Finally, “broccoflower” is a term used to describe Romanesco broccoli that, as mentioned above, is actually a kind of cauliflower. This has very distinctive flower heads that form an appealing, spiraled, geometric structure, much like the mathematical illustrations known as fractals. At the end of the day, it’s important to remember that the myriad variations on broccoli and cauliflower take place within a single species. Although the overlap can be confusing, the principles for growing are much the same. Obviously, for winter and spring crops from this species, timing is everything.
The small city of Greenfield, California, used to call itself the Broccoli Capital of the World, and celebrate an annual Broccoli Festival. Many townsfolk still grow broccoli, but the festival has become the more inclusive Harvest Festival, and honours the $2 billion plus earned in the area each year from cultivating all manner of produce. Greenfield is now known as the “Salad Bowl of the World.”