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What is Brassica Oleracea?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Kristen Osborne
  • Last Modified Date: 06 December 2016
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Brassica oleracea or wild cabbage is the wild relative of widely cultivated edible plants including cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage, kale, collard greens, and broccoli. This plant is native to Europe and Africa, where it continues to grow today. It is edible, although not as tasty or nutritious as the cultivars developed for human use.

Records suggest that Brassica oleracea is among the earliest cultivated plants. The Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians all consumed it and identified several different cultivars. It was also popular in parts of Northern Europe, where fresh vegetables could be difficult to cultivate due to the climate, and Brassica oleracea thrived in harsh environments where other plants couldn't grow.

Several domesticated cultivars like broccoli and collard greens are actually just specially bred versions of the same species, Brassica oleracea. Over centuries of cultivation, a number of distinct groups of cultivars within this species have arisen. The cultivars are so different from each other that people are sometimes surprised to learn they are the same species, and they have also diverged significantly from the wild species. In all cases, Brassica oleracea tends to prefer slightly sandy, well-drained soil and a moist, cool climate. In the wild, this plant is often found along coastlines, and it is highly salt tolerant.

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In addition to being cultivated to develop edible cultivars, Brassica oleracea has also be been bred to make ornamental plants. Ornamental kale is a popular inclusion in some gardens, with colorful, ruffly leaves. Various cultivars can be interbred to produce hybrids of interest, a tactic used by some agricultural companies to develop new vegetables for the commercial market.

All cultivars can be grown from seed and are generally fairly easy to grow. Nurseries also sell seedlings for people who do not want to start their gardens from seed. The soil should be moist and well drained with compost added for nutrition, and the plants can mature in a few weeks to a few months, depending on the cultivar being grown.

Brassica oleracea and its domesticated cousins share a distinctive bitter, slightly sharp flavor that becomes sweet with cooking. These plants can be steamed, boiled, fried, and prepared in a variety of other ways, including in pickled and other preserved forms. One thing to be aware of with Brassica oleracea and other brassicas, as other edible plants in this genus are known, is that they can increase intestinal gas due to byproducts developed during metabolism. People with a history of bloating or flatulence may want to keep brassicas off the menu.

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