Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Vegetable Profile: Broccoli and Calabrese

The spring I’ve had more than one visitor look at my purple sprouting broccoli covered in mature buds and question, “Where’s the broccoli?”  I explained that all those small purple sprouts were the broccoli.  That gave me the idea of doing a new series of posts delving into the details of different crops.  I have a number of books that have helped us along the way to understand how different crops are related to each other.  So, here’s what I’ve gleaned about broccoli.
Purple Sprouting Broccoli
First of all I’d like to say that taxonomists don’t all agree on how to classify the different types of broccoli.  I’m going to primarily use information from my books that were published in the UK, since broccoli was developed in Europe. 

Broccoli is in the Brassica (Cabbage) family.  It was developed from the wild cabbage in the 17th century in Italy.  The part we know as broccoli at the grocery store is the flower bud.  All brassicas will form flower buds which is troubling if you are trying to grow a cabbage to harvest.  (If you’ve had cabbage “bolt” you know what I mean.)  Broccoli varieties have been breed to form nice flower buds for harvesting.  Broccoli varieties are divided into sprouting types and heading types.  They are cultivated in different ways.

Sprouting Broccoli (Brassica oleracea Cymosa Group)(Purple Sprouting)
This group is very hardy and makes an excellent winter crop.  The flower buds are typically purple, but there are cream white varieties.  The flower buds form on both the top of the plant and on side shoots.  They produce over a long season from early winter to late spring.  We planted our purple sprouting broccoli in late august and was harvesting from early March to late May.

Heading Broccoli (Brassica oleracea Italica Group)(Calabrese, Green Sprouting Broccoli, Italian or American Broccoli)
This group produces a large central head and is what one typically thinks of as Broccoli.  Some varieties produce sideshoots after the main head is harvested.  Romanesco (Roman broccoli) is another form of heading broccoli that is cone shaped with smaller conical whorls on the surface.  Heading broccoli can be successively planted from early spring to mid summer, for harvesting from summer to fall.  In a mild winter a young plant may survive to produce heads in the spring, but it is much less hardy than the purple sprouting types and may not make it.

To make matters more confusing there are also types of Chinese broccoli and Broccoli rabe.  I’ve never grown Chinese broccoli, so I don’t have much to write about that.  Broccoli rabe is super easy to grow and is popular in Italy.  It is grown for its greens, stalks, and tangy flower buds.  It has a very strong flavor with the bitterness common in greens.  Broccoli rabe is very hardy and can be overwintered.  We only grew it once and found that we prefer the taste of kale and purple broccoli for our winter crops.  But, it is one for those easy crops that everyone should try at least once.  Plant in early fall. 

With all broccoli, it is important to harvest while the flower buds are tightly packed.  The buds mature quickly and will open up with yellow flowers.  We have used the freshly opened flowers for stir frying which is really pretty.  You can also use the tender stems in cooking or for soups.  I like to grow brassicas that will be ready to harvest during the cool season.  The cold temperature causes the plants to concentrate their sugars, so they are sweeter than those picked during the warm season.  
Broccoli rabe flower buds that have opened.  Used in sir fry. 
I won’t go into too much detail about pests and diseases.  If you don’t like caterpillars and aphids in your broccoli, I would recommend row covers to keep out the white cabbage moths and aphids during the spring and summer.  A row cover will also keep the cabbage root maggot fly from laying eggs in your soil.  The root maggots will hatch and eat the roots of your seedlings and kill them.  If you grow overwinter pests are less of a problem.  Also rotate your crops to avoid clubroot that is a soil-borne fungus that deforms the roots and causes root-rot.  Crop rotation is a good idea to avoid pests and diseases building up in one spot.

So, if you are not deterred by the prospect of catepillars, aphids, maggots and fungus, I’d say give a few varieties of broccoli a try.  Definitely attempt overwintering purple broccoli.  It is so wonderful having something fresh to harvest in late winter after months of eating all those put up (canned, frozen, dried, and cellared) crops from the previous summer and fall harvests.

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