How Humans Bred One Plant Family For 2000 Years
Image Credit: Broccoli, Pexels

Since time immemorial, humans have bred plants from one family to create a variety of foods. The humble cruciferous vegetable family, which includes broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts, has come a long way over the past 2000 years. What once was a wild and bitter plant is now a staple in gardens and grocery stores worldwide. This is thanks to the tireless efforts of human cultivators, who have been selectively breeding these plants for over two millennia.

Let’s delve into the fascinating history of how humans have bred one plant family for 2000 years to give us the delicious and nutritious vegetables we know and love today.  

Meet the Brassicaceae Family  

The cruciferous vegetable family, also known as the Brassicaceae or Cruciferae family, originally hails from the Mediterranean and Central Asia and is a member of the mustard family, which includes plants such as mustards, radishes, and turnips. This family of plants is unique because it can cross-pollinate, meaning that different varieties of the same species can be bred to create new varieties.

Wild cruciferous plants were known for their bitter flavor and tough leaves and were likely only consumed by humans in times of scarcity. However, as early as 2000 years ago, ancient civilizations began experimenting with selective breeding to improve the taste and texture of these plants. This allowed people to harvest and store more food, as the heads of the plants could be preserved for longer periods of time.  

The History of Cruciferous Vegetable Cultivation

One of the earliest examples of cruciferous vegetable cultivation can be found in ancient Rome. The Romans were particularly fond of a type of wild cabbage known as "Brassica oleracea" and began breeding it for larger and more flavorful leaves. This eventually led to the development of modern-day cabbage, which was a staple food for the Roman army and lower classes.

The practice of breeding cruciferous vegetables continued during the Middle Ages in Europe, where monasteries played a key role in the development of new varieties. Monks were known for their expertise in horticulture and were responsible for breeding new varieties of broccoli, cauliflower, and other cruciferous vegetables. They experimented with different techniques, such as crossbreeding, which led to the development of new and improved varieties.  

During the Renaissance, the practice of breeding cruciferous vegetables spread to other parts of Europe and eventually to the Americas. In the 16th century, Spanish and Italian explorers introduced broccoli, cauliflower, and other cruciferous vegetables to the New World. These vegetables quickly became popular among the local populations, and farmers began to breed new varieties to suit the different climates and soils.  

The practice of breeding cruciferous vegetables also played an important role in the agricultural revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries. With the invention of new farming techniques and tools, farmers were able to produce larger and more consistent crops. This led to the development of new varieties of broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, and other cruciferous vegetables that were hardier and more resistant to disease.

In the 20th century, the science of plant breeding became more advanced with the advent of new technologies such as genetic engineering. This allowed scientists to precisely control the genes of plants, resulting in new and improved varieties. Today, there are countless varieties of cruciferous vegetables available, each with unique flavor, texture, and nutritional properties.

How Many Different Vegetables Have Been Bred from the Original Wild Cabbage?

In addition to the vegetables mentioned above, there are also many other varieties that have been bred from the original wild cabbage. These include kohlrabi, collard greens, bok choy, and rutabaga. All of these vegetables are members of the Brassica oleracea species and are closely related to cauliflower and broccoli.  

Brussels sprouts, Image Source: Pexels 

Other Cabbage Family Plants  

In addition to the vegetables mentioned above, there are also many other plants in the Brassicaceae family. These plants have been bred from the original wild cabbage and are closely related. These plants include black kale, mustard, radish, turnip, and rapeseed.  

Mustard is a popular condiment and is used to add flavor to a variety of dishes. Radish is a root vegetable that is often eaten raw or cooked. Turnip is a root vegetable that is often used in soups and stews. Rapeseed is an oilseed crop that is used to produce cooking oil and biodiesel fuel.  

Today, the Brassicaceae family has been bred and manipulated to produce a wide variety of vegetables, from tiny, green Brussels sprouts to huge, purple-tinged cauliflowers. These vegetables are not just a source of nutrition but a source of beauty as well.

Our modern-day diet would not be the same without the Brassicaceae family. This family of plants has been bred for more than 2,000 years to give us some of the most delicious and nutritious vegetables we know and love today.  

So, next time you’re enjoying a tasty plate of broccoli, a crunchy cabbage salad, or a creamy cauliflower mash, take a moment to appreciate the ingenuity and determination of our ancestors and the ongoing evolution of our food.