The Wild World of Broccoli

— Written By and last updated by Dawn Stone

Summer has past and the cold chill of winter is already at our doors. Many of us have hung up our shovels and rakes for the year, just waiting for spring to poke its head around the corner so we can begin our obsession with locally grown fruits and vegetables again. Well, I am pleased to announce that spring will be coming earlier this year thanks to cool season vegetables like cabbage, kale and broccoli. These vegetables are available to many of us throughout the year and are especially delicious during the frigid months of December and January.

Today, I would like to introduce you all to a very popular vegetable that has recently been discovered to be one of the healthiest on the market. I am referring to broccoli or Brassica oleracea. Coming from the Latin word for arm or branch, broccoli has been actively produced in some form for the past 8000 years. Originating from the wild varieties of cabbage located on the chalky bluffs of England, broccoli and its family members, cabbage, Brussel sprouts and cauliflower have been transported by colonists and invaders for thousands of years. The first written records of broccoli are from the Hellenic culture roughly 2500 years ago. It was widely used to feed the conquering roman armies as they spread throughout the Mediterranean Region. Italian and Danish Horticulturalists have been credited with the development of the plant that is currently recognized as broccoli. Many of the earlier varieties looked and tasted a lot more like cauliflower than the bright green varieties available at today’s modern grocery stores.

In the United States, broccoli has been grown consistently over the past 150 years. It was not until the early 1900’s, when green vegetables were found to have more vitamins and nutrients than their blanched or white cousins, that broccoli gained its massive popularity. Today, broccoli is recognized as an extremely healthy vegetable that is rich in Vitamin A, C and various anti-carcinogens or anti-cancer compounds. Whether eaten raw or cooked, broccoli can provide many benefits to human health, many of which are still being discovered.

As well as being extremely nutritious, broccoli is also extremely easy to grow in the home garden setting. Broccoli is considered a cool season vegetable because it prefers cooler evenings between 60 and 70 degrees and tends to preform poorly in hotter more arid conditions. With a relatively short growing season, roughly 90 days, it is ideal to plant broccoli in the early spring or the early fall. This allows local broccoli to be available in markets almost all year round. Broccoli is also extremely adapted to being stored frozen, allowing for it to be kept for long periods of time, making it available throughout the world no matter what season it is.

In today’s vegetable markets, many of us think of broccoli as a bright green vegetable that resembles a small tree. Although this is true, broccoli can come in a variety of colors and textures ranging from the traditional green to white and even purple. In the future, many new varieties of broccoli will become commercially available as United States consumers become more open to vegetables that don’t necessarily resemble the foods that we grew up with. New varieties of broccoli will be breed to encourage stronger flavors, higher vitamin content, longer shelf life and an increased disease resistance. All of these traits will allow for a continued expansion of broccoli in vegetable markets. There is no doubt that broccoli has come a long way over the past 8000 years, now being available in markets around the globe. With future research and breeding programs, broccoli will continue to be a valuable staple in the American diet.

Here at the Randolph County Cooperative Extension, we strive to help and educate the public in whatever way we can. If you have any questions about broccoli or any other agricultural crops, please feel free to contact us at the Randolph County Cooperative Extension office by phone at (336) 318-6000 or in person at 112 W. Walker Ave. here in Asheboro.