The broccoli we know today was bred from wild mustard plants that grew around the Mediterranean region. The parent plants of modern broccoli were grown in Roman times, so the vegetable has been around in one form or another for at least 2,000 years.
Farmers, mostly in Italy, chose the characteristics they liked and selected only the plants that showed these characteristics.1 OVer long periods of time, heads of broccoli, as we know them today, became more popular than the leaf vegetable or the smaller, more mustard-like, broccolini (or broccoletti).
Although coming from the warm, temperate Mediterranean area, broccoli (Brassica oleracea) plants can cope with a surprising range of weather conditions. All above-ground parts of the plant, that is, the leaves, leaf stems, flower stems, flowers and seed pods, are edible but we typically think of broccoli as a small “tree-shaped” vegetable. The part we eat, the “crown”, is actually an immature flower head.
Broccoli is a member of the brassica (cabbage) family, which contains other leaf and flowering-head vegetables like cabbage, mustards, kale, kohlrabi and brussel sprouts! Broccoli plants are typically dark green, but that is not always the case. Broccoli can be light green, as is the case of the Romanesco variety; or even dark-purple.
Broccoli can be eaten raw; young flower heads are delicious in salads. Broccoli can be steamed or cut into small florets and used in stir-fries. I am very partial to broccoli soup and I have experimented with baking broccoli but didn’t find it an easy process – the florets tend to burn while the stems stay tough. If you don’t like the ‘tough’ stems of broccoli, trying cutting them into matchsticks and using them in your stir-fry; or slice them thinly and bake as chips! If you don’t like that, they make a great base for your stock: just store them in the freezer until your ready to make stock. They can also be used in easy pickle recipes!
Broccoli is nutrient dense and yet low in kilojoules (calories). One cup of broccoli florets has the same amount of protein as one cup of rice but only one-third of the kilojoules.2 That cup of broccoli also has the about the same amount of Vitamin C as contained in one fresh orange. 3
Broccoli is high in fibre and rich in antioxidants. It is good for heart health, eye health and disease prevention. Gentle steaming will give the most health benefits. 4
The naturally occurring chemicals in broccoli may assist in controlling diabetes, slow osteoarthritis, and/or reduce the rate at which cancer cells grow.3
However, there are some people who should limit their intake of broccoli: 3
- those using blood thinners
- those who have irritable bowel syndrome
- those who have kidney problems
That being said, broccoli is listed as one the top three anti-inflammatory foods, along with berries and fatty fish. 5
HOW TO GROW BROCCOLI
Most often, broccoli is started from seed in late summer and early autumn (Feb to early April). This gives the plant a chance to grow quickly while the weather and the soil is still warm. The stronger and healthier the plant is, the tougher the winter conditions it can take. Small seedlings are unlikely to survive a heavy frost.
As the weather cools and the soil temperatures gets lower, broccoli growth slows down. In winter it may seem that the plant has gone completely dormant, and this is normal. For this reason, it is better for your plant to be well into its growth before winter sets in.
As the weather begins to warm, the days lengthen and the soil temperature rises, broccoli will come out of its dormant period and begin to grow again. If the weather warms too quickly, your broccoli may ‘bolt’, that is, grow loose (not tight, compact) heads and, in extreme conditions, may go straight to flowering and setting seed.
Broccoli, like all brassicas, are heavy feeders. You will need to grow them in very rich, composted soil. Do not grow them in an area where heavy feeders, such as corn, have been growing, unless you enrich the soil before planting out your broccoli.
Ideally, your seed will have spent 6 to 8 weeks in the fridge before you sow it. The seeds of the Permaculture Sydney West seed bank are kept in a dedicated fridge, at a constant 5°C so they have been prepared for sowing. Start your seeds as soon as possible, preferably before the end of March. The seed should germinate in 5 to 10 days and will be large enough to transplant into a small pot when the seedling has two or three sets of leaves.
Plant the small plants into their final growing position when they are between 5 and 8 cm tall. Remember to give them ample room – refer to the seed packet or the Seed Catalogue for optimum spacing. Plants grown too close together have to fight for soil space, water and nutrients.
Protect the young seedlings from slugs and snails. Feed regularly with a liquid, organic feed, to keep the plants strong and healthy. Remember, that weak plants attract pests, and aphids are particularly fond of brassica plants; as are the caterpillars of the cabbage moth and the white cabbage butterfly.
Protect your plants from the moths and butterflies, by covering them with mosquito netting over plastic hoops. We have found that exclusion is the only way to keep the caterpillars off brassica plants. You could try allowing the weakest plants to be sacrificed but generally it is the aphids that go for the weakest plants; the butterflies still lay their eggs on whatever plant is available.
Depending on the variety of broccoli that you are growing, your broccoli could be producing heads in as little as 80 days. This will depend not only on what variety you choose, but what kind of weather conditions you have on your particular plot, and what kind of winter Western Sydney goes through.
BROCCOLI IN THE PSW SEEDBANK (your seedbank)
- Broccoli ‘Albert’ – compact plant to 70cm, large heads. All-purpose variety.
- Broccoli ‘Calabrese’ – medium sized heads; side shoots after the main head has been harvested
- Broccoli ‘Di Cicco’ – Italian heirloom, small main head; side shoots may develop for six months; a bit trickier to grow
- Broccoli ‘Goliath’ – Italian heirloom, large heads, side shoots, good flavour
- Broccoli ‘Italian Green Sprouting’ – a variety of “Calabrese”
- Broccoli ‘Purple Sprouting’ – smaller, purple heads; good flavour
- Broccoli ‘Rapini” or “Raab’ (Broccoli rapa) – resembles broccolini, more mustardy in flavour
- Broccoli ‘Romanesco’ – head that looks like a spiral; trickier to grow, head is very loose in warm weather; needs to be started early
- Broccoli ‘Umpqua’ – dark, blue-green, medium sized head followed by side shoots over long period
- Broccolini (Brocoletti): NOT baby broccoli; smaller heads, longer stems, more mustardy flavour
Links above are to the PSW 2023 catalogue, where you can find information and, in some cases, photos of the varieties available.
The catalogue is now open for mail order and “click and collect” sales. Please note that mail orders incur a $5 postage and handling fee; “click and collect” orders incur a $2 handling fee.
Seeds for all seasons are available while in stock.
Please note: seeds are for sale to PSW members only.
Until next month
Lynne (PSW Seed Savers Team Coordinator and Custodian of the Seed Bank)
This article is for gardening information and general interest only. Being neither a herbalist nor a qualified medical practitioner, I cannot give any medical advice on the use of any plant, internally or externally. Readers of this article must do their own research before using broccoli for any purpose other than as a garden plant.
- Britannica, Broccoli
- Hannah Baumann and Stephanie Darby, Food as Medicine: Broccoli
- Stephanie Booth, Health Benefits of Broccoli
- Adda Bjarnadotter, Broccoli 101: Nutrition Facts and Health Benefits
- Lisa Wartenberg, 13 of the Most Anti-Inflammatory Foods You Can Eat