The Many Faces of Cabbage

14 Aug 2013 07.37 am by K. Daniel

Ever have one of those situations where you meet a relative, can be close or distant, but it doesn’t look like you’re related at all? Or perhaps you have a sibling, at it just seems like that both of you are so different, you might as well come from different planets? Such is the case in the plant kingdom as well. A lot of closely related plants, even those that come from the same species, have very different looks from one another. The differences do not always come naturally but can be an effect of environmental cues and selective breeding amongst other factors. 


Case in point Brassica oleracea, also known as wild cabbage.  You may also know this vegetable from its other names; broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, kale, Chinese kale, and savoy cabbage.


Wait, what?


All the plants above are actually one single species. Talk about an identity crisis. Once domesticated, it seems that people who grew Brassica oleracea wanted different things to do with the vegetable. Some wanter the flowering florets (e.g. broccoli and cauliflower), other its sturdy leaves (savoy and other cabbages), while several might want softer green leaves (kale and Chinese kale).


Wild cabbage in itself is not a very distinct or interesting looking vegetable.  More similar collard leaves in general by appearance; this green leafed plant has similar growing requirements with other cabbages. The younger leafs and stems are edible when young (bright green and small sized) while older, larger leaves and stems are tough and require some preparation. This is of course unsurprising considering that wild cabbage leaves are thicker than the other varieties derived from it. The leaves may be boiled, steamed, or made into sauerkraut which can soften it to an extent. The flower which resembles broccoli heads may be eaten raw or cooked as well. 


Interestingly in places with minimal frost, the cabbages can develop undisrupted and grow to larger proportions. Cabbages which are three metres tall have been recorded, and these are termed cabbage “trees”. The main branch structure is sometimes used to make walking sticks and so the plant is sometimes known by the name “walking stick kale”. 


Back to the varieties of cabbage plants, the cultivars are grown selectively to cater towards what was needed or expected from them. As such each cultivar is focused on that one part that makes them unique from other members of its family.




Technically not flowers, florets such as those found in broccoli and cauliflower are actually the platform where the flowers begin to form. This occurs after they are at peak density (at which point harvest is usually done). After they are at their peak, the heads loosen and some flowers will begin to sprout, which are the source of seeds. Sprouting flowers are shown in broccoli by yellowing flower buds. This should NOT however be confused with yellowing of the heads due do loss of chlorophyll (no budding structures), which also indicates for a vegetable that has been kept too long. Brown is also not an acceptable colour to have on your vegetables.


The best florets are densely packed with one another. Loose heads mean older vegetables.  Coloration should be green or dark green for broccoli and cream to yellow for cauliflower. If buds appear it should not be an issue as they are still edible. The stems are one of the better indicators of quality, with fresh produce having sturdy, crunchy stems which snap when broken apart, while older, improperly stored plants bending away and having a weak snap because of water loss. These should also not be fibrous or woody, as they won’t be pleasurable to eat.


Broccolini is a cross between broccoli and Chinese broccoli (a.k.a. Kai-Lan). The stems are smaller than broccoli and florets may have purple patches. Florets may appear much like those found in broccoli, but again if it is present it should be in the form of a bud structure rather than just yellowing of the florets. Coloration should be dark green, and stems are slightly softer than broccoli, more reminiscent of asparagus. 




Some people appreciate members of the cabbage family for their dark, broad leafs which can be prepared in various ways. The cultivars which are grown for this quality aspect include kale, Chinese broccoli, and collard greens. The shape of the leaves is very similar to the parent species, Brassica oleracea, although newer varieties grown may be indistinguishable from the rest. Take for example kale, with its curly leaves and bright white stems. Some cultivars possess purple coloured leafs, while others can be white. For this reason these are sometimes grown as ornamental plants. 


Generally the vegetables that you can find in the markets tend to be dark green in coloration. The leaves are usually quite thick compared to other vegetables such as lettuce or spinach, and sturdy. Excessive browning and insect bites in both the stems and leaves are indicative of a lower quality product or improper storage. The same could be said for drooping soft leaves and stems. In some cases, the stems may turn transparent (especially evident in white-stemmed varieties such as kale) which shows that the vegetables have been kept for too long in improper conditions.




Stems are the plant part which supports most of the plant, or perhaps could be considered to be the main body of the plant. Personally, stalks and stems are not my favourite vegetable part and chances are it is the same for some of you too. To me, although these are crunchy and texturally pleasurable, most of the time the ones I get are watery and bland, with not a lot of flavour.


Some farmers though disagree with me. They enjoy the stems and stalks of some vegetables, so much so that they tried to maximize all they could get from the plant. But where are the stems? In cabbages, these come in the form of the cabbage “core”, tough, hard, woody, inedible. In others such as the Kohlrabi, these are sweet, crunchy, and delicious. 


Although the bulbous plant can be mistaken for some sort of root vegetable, these are actually enlarged stems which grow above ground. If you can think of a short and fat kale you’re half way there. The skins of these are appropriately tough, sometimes woody. For that reason the vegetables are often peeled. The stem can be eaten either raw or cooked, with raw vegetables being similar in texture to an apple. The skin should not have any excessive browning, dents, or holes. Coloration will vary between cultivars grown. Texture of the raw vegetable should not be soft. The greens growing on top can be eaten much like collard greens.




Buds are the plant parts which forms the base of other structures, be it the main stem (a.k.a. terminal bud) or side branches (a.k.a. auxiliary bud). The development of each part results in the production of different vegetables.


  • Auxiliary

Budding from the main (terminal) branch yields little green packets. These, when harvested, packaged, and sold, are often known by the name Brussels sprouts. Brussels sprouts grow in clusters on the side of the terminal stem, and if left to grow produce harder, woodier structures. When cut lengthwise, the main “core” where the stem begins to grow is visible in the form of a white bud, much like that found in cabbages. It is unsurprising considering that the buds are the source of the larger plant growths, which is why Brussels sprouts look like mini cabbages, complete with similar structures and leaves.


Quality of Brussels sprouts can be assessed by inspecting the leaves and bud. Brussels sprout leaves should be tightly packed and bright to dark green in colour.  Yellowing and wilting indicates that the sprouts are relatively old, as are loosely packed leaves.


  • Terminal

The terminal bud is the section of the plant at which everything else begins to grow. Roots extend from the base, while the stem grows up the top. The stem itself which can be woody, tough, and fibrous, are not usually eaten. The surrounding leafs that do sprout however are of great interest as a food source. Selective breeding has resulted in shorter, more compact leaves which are tightly wound together surrounding the stem. The leaves are also considerably tougher and denser than say kale or collard greens.


Three main cultivars are currently recognized, white (B. oleracea ssp. capitata var. alba), red (var. rubra), and savoy (B. oleracea ssp. sabauda) which although similar to the white variety is comparatively smaller and more wrinkled in appearance.  Good quality cabbages can be identified through the condition of the leaves. Excessive browning, spots, blotches, wilting, holes, and tears are not desirable compared to a fully intact vegetable. Immature plants may display some light green coloration around their inner leaves. By comparison, older leaves may begin to separate. Weight should be heavy for its size and solid.


So enjoy these in however you like them. After all, these are really one vegetable. Who knew the humble cabbage has (literally) many uses? Several notes on cooking, always wash your vegetables to remove dirt, pesticides, and any other unwanted hitchhikers from your produce. Vegetables in the Brassica family produce sulphur compounds which is extremely evident when overcooked. Therefore be wary of overcooking your cabbages unless you want a slightly bitter, off smelling vegetable for your next meal. That would be sure to put you off cabbages, whatever form they come in.



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