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Herbs - Roots - Vegetables
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Brassica - Cabbage

BRASSICA (brass'i-ka). A botanically confusing genus, but horticulturally important and temperate Old World annual or biennial herbs - leaf or flowering plants - of the family Brassicaceae (Cruciferae), containing not only the mustard, but all the vegetables of the cabbage tribe, as well as rape, turnip, and others (see below). Some, also, are pernicious weeds {see Wild Mustard). The members of the genus may be collectively known either as cabbages, or as mustards.

They have mostly smooth, often bluish-green, water-shedding leaves which may be cut, lobed, or toothed. Flowers (lacking in most of the vegetables as harvested) yellow or white, with 4 petals, and in terminal clusters (racemes). Fruit a long pod (silique), usually stalked. (Brassica is the classical name for cabbage.) The exact name of most of the species is lost in antiquity. Many of the vegetables have been cult, over 2000 years. The cabbage head was bred into the species from the leafy wild plant, found native in the Mediterranean region around 100 AD. The English name derives from the French caboche (head).

This genus is remarkable for containing more important agricultural and horticultural crops than any other genus. Varieties include Red cabbage and Savoy cabbage. It also includes a number of weeds, both wild taxa and escapes from cultivation. It includes over 30 wild species and hybrids, and numerous additional cultivars and hybrids of cultivated origin. Chinese cabbage, while resembling cabbage, is an independent development from a different Brassica species. Most plants of this genus are annuals or biennials, but some are small shrubs.

The genus is native in the wild in western Europe, the Mediterranean and temperate regions of Asia. Through the centuries, plant breeders and explorers have developed unique and flavorful vegetables that have been transported and transplanted around the globe.In addition to the cultivated species, which are grown worldwide, many of the wild species grow as weeds, especially in North America, South America, and Australia.

Almost all parts of some species or other have been developed for food, including the root (swedes, turnips), stems (kohlrabi), leaves (cabbage, brussels sprouts), flowers (cauliflower, broccoli), and seeds (many, including mustard seed, oilseed rape). Some forms with white or purple foliage or flowerheads, are also sometimes grown for ornament.

There is some disagreement among botanists on the classification and status of Brassica species and subspecies. The following is an abbreviated list, with an emphasis on economically important species. The following list is derived and and expanded from Taylor's Encyclopedia of Gardening (1961):

  • alba = B. hirta (see below).
  • arvensis. Charlock. A weedy plant resembling, in some stages, other plants of this genus. It is an annual, 2-3 ft. high, has green, somewhat stiff-hairy foliage, and small yellow flowers. The pod is about % in. long and tipped by a beak at least Vi in. long. Eurasia, but common as a weed in U.S. Also called B. kaber.
  • carinata - Abyssinian Mustard or Abyssinian Cabbage
  • caulorapa. Kohlrabi. A biennial, not over IS in. high, with bluish-green leaves 7-9 in. long borne on a stout stem, the swollen part cear the ground level being edible. Flowers cream-yellow. For culture see Kohlrabi.
  • chinensis. Pak-choi. A Chinese annual or biennial herb, grown there, and a little here, as a pot herb. It has a tight basal cluster (not as tight as cabbage) of leaves which are broadest toward the tip, and have white, margined stalks. The stem leaves are clasping. Flowers cream-yellow. Pods 114—2V in. long.
  • elongata - Elongated Mustard
  • fruticulosa - Mediterranean Cabbage
  • hirta. White mustard. A stout, branching annual, 2—4 ft. high, the foliage sometimes slightly hairy. Leaves ovalish, but divided to or near the midrib, and with a large terminal lobe. Flowers yellow, %-l% in. wide. Pods %—VA^ in. long, constricted between the seeds. Eurasia; also a weed in U.S. Not the chief source of mustard {see B. nigra). Also called B. alba.
  • juncea. Leaf mustard, Indian Mustard, Brown and leaf mustards, and Sarepta Mustard. An annual, 2—4 ft. high. Lower leaves lobed or divided, the edges scalloped; stem leaves narrower, but not clasping. Flowers yellow. Pod l-li in. long. A well-known form, called Southern Curled, has the leaf margins crisped, and is grown for greens.
  • Napobrassica. Rutabaga. A biennial with an underground, yellow or white-fleshed, tuber-like swelling (the rutabaga). Leaves very thick, bluish-green, perfctly smooth, rather long and large and with iyre-Iike divisions. Flowers whitish-yellow. Pods widely spreading, the stalks stout. An agricultural form of it, with large, yellow-fleshed roots is the Swede or Mangel-wurzel. See Rutabaga.
  • Napus. Rape or colza, Oilseed rape, Canola, Rutabaga (Swede Turnip). An annual resembling the rutabaga, but with a thin taproot. It is cult, in Eu. as the source of rape seed, but in U.S. mostly as a farm cover crop.
  • narinosa - Broadbeaked Mustard
  • nigra. Black mustard. The chief source of commercial mustard and a tall annual, 4-6 ft. high, with stiff-hairy, mostly green foliage. Leaves lobed or cut, the terminal lobe larger than the lateral ones. Flowers yellow, in many short clusters. Pods about 1 in. long, hugging the stem. Cult, for mustard but also a widely dispersed weed.
  • oleracea. Kale, Cabbage, Broccoli, Cauliflower, Kai-lan, Brussels sprouts. A thick-leaved, bluish-gray herb, probably native along the coasts of northwestern Eu. but not now cult, in its original form, which appears to have been a biennial or perennial. From it have been derived the following important vegetables: Var, acephala. Kale, also collards, borecole and cow cabbage. A form with many leaves but not in dense cabbage-like heads or rosettes. For culture see Kale. Var. botrytis. Cauliflower. A stemless form in which there is a whitish, much-thickened head consisting of a much-modiSed flower cluster. For culture see Cauliflower. Var. capitata. Cabbage. A stemless form having a single dense head of consolidated leaves. Var. gemmifera. Brussels Sprouts, called also sprouts and thousand-headed-cabbage. With a stout stem, a terminal or nearly terminal crown of leaves, and button-like heads like miniature cabbages along the stem. For culture see Brussels Sprouts. Var. italica. Broccoli, called also sprouting, branching, Italian and asparagus broccoli; also calabrese. A form in which the thickened flower branches are in a loose, not compact, head.
  • pekinensis. Chinese cabbage, but commonly called celery cabbage in the markets, or more rarely, pe-tsai. A plant of Chinese origin in which there is a cylindrical, tender, almost lettuce-like head of whitish, crisp leaves.
  • perviridis - Tender Green, Mustard Spinach.
  • Rapa. Turnip, Chinese cabbage, Rapini. A biennial with green leaves and a yellow or white-fleshed, tuberous, edible, underground portion. It has long, soft but stiff-hairy leaves, divided lyre-fashion. Flowers yellow. Pods 114—2]/6 in. long. There are two varieties. One is var. lorifolia, the strap-leaved turnip, with nearly unlobed leaves. The other is var. senticeps, the seven-top turnip or Italian kale, which has no tuberous thickening, but its edible shoots are harvested. For cult, see Turnip.
  • rupestris - Brown Mustard
  • B. septiceps - Seventop Turnip
  • B. tournefortii - Asian Mustard

Deprecated species:

  • Brassica kaber (Wild Mustard or Charlock) - Sinapis arvensis

Brassica species are sometimes used as food plants by the larvae of a number of Lepidoptera species - see List of Lepidoptera which feed on Brassicas at

Scientific Interest: The Triangle of U

Due to their agricultural importance, Brassica plants have been the subject of much scientific interest. The close relationship between 6 particularly important species (B. carinata, B. juncea, B. oleracea, B. napus, B. nigra and B. rapa) is described by the Triangle of U.

Triange of U

The Triangle of U is a theory which describes the evolution and relationships between members of the plant genus Brassica.The triangle contends that many Brassica species were derived from three ancestral genomes, denoted by the letters AA, BB, or CC. Alone, each of these diploid genomes produces a common Brassica variety. The letter n denotes the number of chromosomes in each genome. For example Brassica rapa has an AA - n=10 designation. That means each cell contains two complete genome copies, (diploid) and each genome has ten chromosomes. Thus each cell will contain 20 chromosomes.

  • AA - n=10 - Brassica rapa - Turnip, Chinese cabbage
  • BB - n= 8 - Brassica nigra - Black mustard
  • CC - n= 9 - Brassica oleracea - Cabbage, kale, broccoli

Initially, these three species would have existed as isolated relatives. But because they are so closely related it was possible for them to interbreed. This interspecific breeding allowed the creation of three new species of tetraploid Brassica. Because they are derived from the genomes of two different species, these hybrid plants are said to be allotetraploid (contain four genomes, derived from different parent species).

  • AABB - n=18 -Brassica juncea - Indian mustard
  • AACC - n=19 -Brassica napus - Rapeseed, rutabaga
  • BBCC - n=17 -Brassica carinata - Ethiopian mustard
  • Taylor's Encyclopedia of Gardening

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This page compliments of Marisa Ciceran 

Created: Thursday, December 14, 2006; Last updated: Sunday, October 14, 2012
Copyright 1998, USA