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.
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.
How to grow
Brussels sprouts are relatively easy to grow, although they require a long season. Typically they are started indoors or in a cold frame, and planted out as seedlings in mid spring in northern areas. They are tolerant of frost, love cool climates, and are less tolerant of extreme heat. In warmer climates, they should be planted to mature in late fall or early winter. In these climates, the plants can produce harvestable sprouts all winter. They like plenty of space – a couple of feet between plants – and require a fertile, ideally humus-rich soil with steady moisture, and close to neutral pH.
The sprouts are harvested from the bottom up and may need to be picked regularly or the oldest ones will begin to unfold. They are still edible at this point, just not ideal. In northern areas, plants should be pinched so the very top of the stem is broken off to encourage the sprouts to fill out about five to eight weeks ahead of harvest. In colder climates this would be mid to late August. Some early maturing hybrid yields do not improve with topping. While the plants are frost hardy, and the leaves offer some protection, the buds can be damaged with repeated temperatures in the mid to low 20s.
One strategy to prolong harvest in colder climates is to place straw around the stems and harvest into early winter. While brussels sprouts can be harvested in the snow, much depends on how cold the daily temperatures are. In my climate, Zone 5, it is rare to see a plant winter over.
Path to today
The development and history of the brussels sprout is somewhat mysterious, but by around 1806, the seeds of brussels sprouts appear in Philadelphia seedsman Bernard McMahon’s broadside catalog, pointing to an earlier development in Europe. Garden manuals mention them in the first half of the 1800s, so clearly they were gaining in popularity.
Some of those authors said there was only one variety, while others distinguish between a tall and a dwarf type, and both are clearly present after 1860.
In the late 19th century, according to cultivated plant specialist Dr. William Sturtevant, brussels sprouts were grown “only in the gardens of amateurs, yet deserving more esteem.” Close to 40 varieties were known by 1900 in the United States, offered by dozens of seed companies but probably representing only minor variations.
Nowadays, brussels sprouts varieties tend to be variable in how well they perform in different climates, soil types, etc. Heirloom brussels sprouts are harder to find and may not perform as well as more modern hybrid varieties. While I encourage you to try some of the older types, consider hybrids if the heirlooms do not perform adequately.
Roodnerf is an old variety from the Netherlands and actually represents several closely related types, although it appears only one selection is currently on the market. These often perform so well they were used as the parent source for some of the modern hybrids. Plants are medium in height, fairly hardy, some with purplish stems, yielding medium size green sprouts.
Another medium size plant is the Bedford Fillbasket, one of the English varieties that are generally only available through English seed companies. These are reputed to have uniform good yields, though I found them to be less than reliable, although producing some large dark green sprouts. They will probably perform better in a more moderated climate than Zone 5.
A beautiful plant is Rubine, obtained by crossing a red cabbage with a brussels sprout. It is commonly referred to as an heirloom but only dates to about 1954. It is a very long-season plant, hard to obtain meaningful yields in cold climates, typically producing small sprouts in my experience. Still, it is a gorgeous plant and makes a great annual ornamental. Other contemporary red brussels are available though uncommon.
Improved Long Island is a shorter or dwarf type originally having several synonyms including the currently used name Long Island Improved, Long Island Half Dwarf, Improved Half Dwarf and others. Brussels sprouts were grown on far eastern Long Island beginning around 1876, and Long Island growers developed this variety. Plants yield fairly uniform sprouts, and the stems fill out nicely if pinched.
Catskill was introduced by Joseph Harris’ seed company and bred by Arthur White of Arkport, New York in 1941. It was selected from a private stock of Long Island Improved. Plants are short, considered dwarf, producing lots of small sprouts. Sometimes the names Catskill and Long Island Improved are used interchangeably; they are not the same.
While brussels sprouts take a long time to bear, there is no vegetable quite like them for an extended fall harvest up to Thanksgiving. If you happen to live in a mild winter climate, they will thrive all winter long. Their usefulness in a wide range of side dishes and main courses make them an excellent tasting, nutritious addition to many meals.
Lawrence Davis-Hollander is an ethnobotanist, plantsman and gardener, former director and founder of the Eastern Native Seed Conservancy, and currently a contributor to Dandelion Gardening Arts in Norfolk, Connecticut.