Rare Heirloom Varieties for Growing Broccoli

Calabrese Green and Early Purple Sprouting are just a couple of the rare heirloom varieties for growing broccoli.

  • De-Cicco-Broccoli
    De Cicco Broccoli is another Italian heirloom for growing broccoli, known for compact plants with a 4-inch central head.
    Photo Courtesy Seed Savers Exchange
  • Purple-Of-Sicily
    Purple of Sicily Cauliflower, while appearance and name say otherwise, really is a broccoli.
    Photo Courtesy Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds
  • Green-Broccoli
    Brought to the United States in the 1880s, Calabrese Green Sprouting Broccoli is delicious and easy to grow.
    Photo Courtesy Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds

  • De-Cicco-Broccoli
  • Purple-Of-Sicily
  • Green-Broccoli

Broccoli is an ancient vegetable, yet it didn’t gain much recognition until recently. To tell the story of this plant, we have to go to western and southern Europe, along the coasts of Greece and the former Yugoslavia (now Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and Albania), where the ancestor of broccoli grew wild and still does today.

These plants, Brassica oleracea, or wild cabbage, were likely used as a food from Neolithic times. It is the parent and ancestor to a large number of cultivated offspring that are divided into seven or eight groups representing different plant forms. For example, the Capitata Group encompasses the common heading cabbages like savoy, green, red or spring greens varieties, with a terminal bud, botanically speaking. The Acephala Group includes most of the common leafy types like kale and collards, while kohlrabi is a swollen stem of the Gongylodes Group. Additionally cauliflower, Brussels sprouts and Tronchuda (Portuguese kale) each represent a different group. Broccoli is in the Italica Group, which, like cauliflower, is an inflorescence (flower cluster), yet the tissue has a number of single flower buds rather than being condensed into a solid head as it is in cauliflower. Altogether the plants of Brassica oleracea represent thousands of varieties, yet only one species.

Crucifers, all

This species belongs to Cruciferae, or crucifers, a large plant family consisting of many species including edible types such as the mustards, horseradish, turnips, rutabagas, and many forms of Chinese vegetables, watercress and others. Crucifer refers to the four-part flowers in the shape of a cross. Flowers of many species are yellow or white, while others occur in a range of other colors. Some Cruciferae ornamentals include Arabis (rockcress), Cherianthus (Erysimum or wallflower), Iberis (candytuft), Lunaria (honesty), and Matthiola (stock).

Broccoli, unlike many members of this species, is an annual. They can bloom the first year, although in mild climates they may be treated as biennials, and some types need vernalization, an induced shortening of the vegetative period, to develop properly. Winter-hardy relatives like kale or collards will flower the second year, producing lovely shoots of flower buds that can be regularly pinched off for a spring harvest and are excellent lightly steamed or added to salads. These buds somewhat resemble a skinny broccoli rabe, which to be clear is not a broccoli, but rather a relative of the turnip.

Early cultivation

Most folks think early broccoli cultivation occurred around 600 B.C. in Italy or Cyprus, although it is possible that it was cultivated much earlier. Often it is hard to distinguish which plant is being referred to in ancient literature, and there are few specific references to it. Broccoli formed part of the diet of both Greeks and Romans. The Romans had two cabbage varieties known as cauliculi and cymae. The latter is believed to be a form of sprouting broccoli, or a stalked variety, and commanded a good price as it was reserved for wealthier Romans. The same became true for the large-headed cabbages the Romans developed, making them a valuable commodity.

A long period elapses before we hear much about broccoli again, perhaps because of the lack of distinction from other brassicas. It seemed to be largely confined to Italy until the mid-16th century when Catherine de Medici is credited with introducing it to France, although it is just as likely that her Italian chefs were responsible.

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