Beautiful Brassicas

Beautiful Brassicas

The Brassica family of plants is one of the most prolific genera of vegetables in the world, enjoyed by countless generations in many forms and playing a starring role in many culturally significant recipes. Brassica vegetables, including bok choy, cabbage, cauliflower, collards, broccoli, Brussels Sprouts, kale, kohlrabi, rutabagas, and turnips are popular around the world today and have been a major food source for as long as anyone can remember. The Chinese philosopher Confucius, before dying in 479 B.C. wrote over 300 traditional songs describing life in the Chou dynasty. Many of the songs were agriculturally themed and named over 40 foods of the time, including cabbage! Perhaps current songwriters should devote more lyrics to healthy eating and the joys of agriculture!


Also known as cole crops, derived from the Latin word caulis, denoting the stem or stalk of a plant, brassica provide plenty of nutrition (vitamin C and soluble fiber) and healthy doses of glucosinolates, a compound that helps reduce the risk of various cancers of the digestive tract.  In addition, red Brassicas provide mega-doses of Anthocyanin (a powerful anti-oxidant) at bargain prices. Some glucosinolates have a bitter flavor that makes them unpalatable to some people.  Modern breeding has replaced some of the bitter glucosinolates with neutral-flavored ones so that all palates can enjoy Brassicas.

Most members of our garden Brassicas are all members of the same species: Brassica oleracea.  Simple and natural mutations lead to the development of large leaves in kale and collards, while other mutations lead to the development of heads in cabbage, arrested flower development in broccoli and cauliflower, or prolific development of axillary buds in Brussels sprouts.  Other members of the Brassica family include Chinese cabbage, radish (root), and kohlrabi (swollen stem).

In many areas, brassica crops are best planted in the early spring or fall. Many can endure or embrace a light frost so consider them extenders of your gardening year. Overall, brassicas are easy to grow, just follow the directions that come with the seed or plants that you purchase and enjoy them in your garden.

Major Types of Brassicas:

Cabbage comes in many forms and colours: white, green, red, round, flat, pointed, savoyed, Chinese, etc.  Cabbage can be grown nearly year-round; delicately textured early spring cabbages, sweet and tasty pointed cabbages, bolder summer cabbages, and hardy winter cabbage.

The early spring and summer types are attractive to modern consumers as they have small heads (no waste) and can be eaten raw or just lightly cooked.  They also have lettuce-like qualities: crunchy and juicy with a very mild flavor.  For refreshing salads, light, crunchy and juicy cabbage is desired.  For stir fries thin, crisp leaves cook quickly but still retain some crunch.  For coleslaw, cabbage needs enough oomph to stand up to the mayonnaise and marinades and not get soggy.  And, for soups and stews, cabbage that retains its texture and does not turn to mush after simmering for a while is desired. Savoy cabbage is best eaten cooked, it develops a lovely sweetness and brilliant fresh color after steaming for just a few minutes.  Toss with some milk and sprinkle with some nutmeg – you’ll have a whole new appreciation for savoy cabbage – light, attractive, tasty and healthy!

As a cook and gardener, it is helpful to be aware of the kind of cabbage you grow to get the desired results.  Here is a quick guide:

Early Spring types are juicy and tender; best used for fresh salads. 

Summer/Round types are thicker and harder; best used for coleslaw, salads, and cooking. 

Summer/Pointed types are soft and tender; best used for fresh salads or grilled. 

Summer/Flat types are thin and crunchy; best used for sandwich wraps, rolls, and stir fries. 

Summer/Savoy types are crinkled and light; best used for stir-fries, steamed or in soups. 

Winter /Storage types are thicker and firmer; best used for coleslaw, soups, and stews. Storage types can be kept in the refrigerator or root cellar for long periods of time and eaten during the winter months. 

Chinese/Napa are barrel shaped and either green or yellow on the inside and usually have a green exterior. They are best eaten raw or lightly cooked. 


Pak Choi, aka Bok Choi is closely related to the Chinese/Napa cabbage but has a very different appearance. The stems are thick and juicy and grow upright like celery. Both the stem and leaves can be chopped for use in stir fry or salads. Baby varieties can be split and grilled or quickly broiled for a beautiful side dish. From above the plants resemble flowers. Shanghai types have green stems and leaves. Canton types have bright white stems and green leaves. Bothe types come in baby and adult varieties. 


Cauliflower plants prefer to grow without heat stress and do best in fall or in areas with mild summers.   Popular types include the standard white varieties and more exotic colors and shapes also available to home gardeners. In recent years cooked cauliflower has become popular as a replacement for potatoes or flour in many recipes (like mashed potatoes or pizza crust).

White types are most often self-blanching- meaning inner leaves cover the curds and protect them from the sun. 

Romanesco types are a special type of green cauliflower.  The head is a collection of spiraled florets and will be a great way to teach your kids about the Fibonacci numbers (math during dinner!).  Romanesco is great for roasting – it is a bit drier than regular cauliflower. 

Novelty Types are also a lot of fun for the garden. Try a purple or orange variety! They have a similar flavor but add an unexpected pop of color to a veggie tray. 


Like cauliflower, broccoli also is harvested in the early flowering stage. The plants will want to move along and form flowers, so be sure to harvest while the buds are still closed and tight. Broccoli florets are an easy way to get your nutrition but don’t forget about the stalk. The peeled stalk has very good flavor and texture – very similar to kohlrabi sticks.  You can find julienned broccoli stems in your local grocery as “broccoli slaw”. And don’t forget about the baby broccoli, seen in grocery stores under the brand name of Broccolini ™ but also available as seed for the home gardener. Another broccoli relative is the Italian heirloom broccoli raab.

Broccoli likes rich soil which includes nitrogen and calcium. Broccoli prefers cool weather so plant in early spring or late summer for a fall harvest. It can also be planted in fall to overwinter in areas with mild winter weather. 

Baby broccoli seed has become available to home gardeners in recent years. Pinch the main head out when it is the size of a nickel so that your plant sends out the tender stemmed side shoots. Regular harvesting will increase yield.

Broccoli Raab is an heirloom type, harvested when florets are very small and tender. Like baby broccoli, regular harvesting will increase overall all yield. Broccoli raab matures quickly so keep an eye on it. 


Some say that Brussels Sprouts are the new kale and they indeed have all the same health benefits that kale provides.  Brussels sprouts are perfect for roasting (together with beets, carrots, and cauliflower), on the BBQ (skewer), or in a good stew or finely shredded for salad. Select good varieties for the home garden that do not have to be “topped”. By removing the growing point of the plant (“topping”) you can stimulate the development of the Sprouts (side shoots) for an earlier harvest. The top of the plant is also delicious when wilted in some olive oil with garlic, and dressed with some balsamic vinegar. Tasty! How about a nice stalk with perfect sprouts as a gift for the Thanksgiving host?

Brussels sprouts are best planted in the late summer for a fall harvest or can overwinter in mild areas. 


Collards look like a flat leaved version of kale, but collards are actually just big leafy cabbage plants that don’t make a head!  The nutrient content of collards is very similar to that of kale, and so they are interchangeable in many recipes.  Collards have been traditionally stewed (with a ham bone for added flavor and nutrition) in the US, but in recent years have been used for everything from salads to wraps to chips. They are easy to grow and leaves can be regularly cut so that the plant produces more. They prefer temperatures under 90 degrees and are best planted in the spring or fall except in mild-summer regions.

Vates and Georgia types have smooth, medium green leaves (best for wraps), and upright plants that regrow quickly. Look to hybrids for improved yield (less stem, fastest regrowth) and bolt tolerance. 

Champion types have a slightly savory/waxy leaf (best for chips). They are often a darker green or dark blue green. The plants are smaller and more cold tolerant than the other types. Look to hybrids for higher yield, quicker maturity, and improved bolt tolerance. 


Kale made it to the top of the ANDI list (Aggregate Nutrient Density Index), and now you can find kale everywhere.  Kale is just about the easiest to grow of all the Brassicas and can be harvested continuously by just harvesting the lower leaves while the top leaves keep growing. Kale is easy to cook with and becomes tender if you chop it, knead it with a little oil and vinegar and marinade for a few minutes before serving.

Curly-leaf types have better cold and frost tolerance, a bit of frost will tenderize the leaves and make them sweeter.  You can also put your kale in the freezer overnight to get the same effect. 

Lacinato/Dinosaur types have deep blue-green, sword-shaped leaves and are mild tasting in the summer and fall and yet are very cold tolerant as well. They are a key ingredient in many Italian soups and make great chips. 

Russian types are mild in the summer and also cold tolerant. They can overwinter in mild areas. 

And don’t forget about Tronchuda or Portuguese types, the crucial ingredient in Portuguese Kale Soup (Caldo Verde). 

The first written mention of Kohlrabi was made by Dutch botanist Rembrant Dodoens in 1554. Kohlrabi has long been popular in Europe, back to the Roman Empire, but eventually found its way onto American tables, perhaps with French settlers around 1900. Commercial cultivation began in California in the 1920’s and California remains the primary production area due to the cool foggy weather in coastal regions. Open-pollinated and standard size varieties are best consumed while still small (like a baseball).  Giant hybrid varieties maintain nice internal texture and can be allowed to grow bigger.

Giant types can make heads the size of bowling balls! 

Standard types are best harvested at baseball size or smaller. 


The humble Radish gets much less attention than it deserves. Easy to grow, maturing quickly, and growing nearly year round in some areas radishes add crunch and color to salads and vegetable trays and play an important part in traditional spring meals in Europe and the US. Asian soups get some quick color with the addition of a thinly sliced radish and Indian flat bread called mooli paratha use grated radish for a pop of flavor and color. Radish grows best when sown directly into the soil.

Red Round Types grow quickly and make a great first vegetable for kids to grow. Plant when cool and water evenly for mild flavored roots. Heat and stress cause early bolting. 

Novelty types come in many shapes and colors. French breakfast is nice sliced thin and served with sea salt on tiny buttered toasts. Watermelon types mature a little later but are worth the wait! They should be sliced with a mandolin and served on salads. Daikon is used for pickles and stores well. Easter Egg types are brightly colored and fun for kids.


Rutabagas are a cross between a turnip and a wild cabbage. They trace back to the middle ages and were used in cattle fodder and only eaten in times of hardship. They require cold conditions before harvest for maximum sweetness and store well. Most varieties have roots with a purple top and creamy white/yellow bottom.  


The Turnip loves poor soil and store well making it the perfect garden plant. Some types are grown for the tops, which are often stewed like collards, while other types are used only for the root. A few particularly useful types have edible roots and stems. Before pumpkins became popular for Halloween décor, turnips were carved and carried as lanterns on sticks or used as fall decoration in the UK. 


Information provided by the National Garden Bureau

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  • Kristin Ego