All About Brussels Sprouts

Origins, how to grow, and varieties of Brussels sprouts you should consider in your next vegetable garden.

| January/February 2016

Brussels sprouts (Brassica oleracea var. gemmifera) are one of those vegetables that people either seem to love or detest. Perhaps they produce strong negative reactions because they are equated with miniature cabbages. When overcooked or produced from a plastic bag from the freezer, they tend to lose some of their luster and can be a sorrowful soggy mess. But plucked directly from the garden after being tinged with a frost to enhance their sweetness, they are at their finest. Today one can find brussels sprouts in markets fresh on the stalk, bagged or loose.

I like these delectables halved and oven roasted on their own, with pecans or walnuts, with other fall root vegetables, pan roasted with garlic, or lightly steamed and served with butter or olive oil. Properly prepared, neither their texture nor taste is like that of the cabbage.

Botanically speaking

Brussels sprouts are part of that wide ranging food plant family, the Brassicaceae or Cruciferae, which provides our table with vegetables like radishes, mustard greens, turnips, rutabagas, arugula, Chinese cabbage, broccoli rabe and watercress.

The family is named the Cruciferae because its four-parted flowers are in the shape of a cross, often white or yellow in color. The fruit is a silique, a two-parted pod, vaguely resembling a thin bean pod that separates into two parts divided by a membrane containing numerous dry seeds.

The list of food plants in the Brassicaceae incudes the cabbage group – Brassica oleracea, to which the brussels sprout, a relative newcomer, belongs. Brussels sprouts essentially arose from the same common wild plant ancestor as kale, collards, broccoli and cabbage. The wild brassica parent originates in coastal limestone cliff areas around southern Britain, western France and northwestern Spain where they still grow. Short-lived perennials, they can occur in large patches. Some populations have interbred with closely related species from southern Europe. Further complicating their story, wild populations have crossbred with their domesticated offspring such as kale. Like most of its domesticated cousins, brussels sprouts are biennials, blooming after an extended cold period.

Each of these plants has been bred or selected for a particular physical trait – kale for leaves, kohlrabi for its swollen stem, broccoli for its flower buds – and each is considered a separate group, although all can interbreed. Cabbage and brussels sprouts were both selected for their buds: in cabbage it is a single terminal bud, the cabbage head, while in brussels sprouts it is a series of lateral buds, the “sprouts.” It is likely that the first brussels sprouts were the result of mutation.

mother earth news fair 2018 schedule


Next: April 28-29, 2018
Asheville, NC

Sit in on dozens of practical workshops from the leading authorities on modern homesteading, animal husbandry, gardening, real food and more!