Cruciferous and Green Leafy Vegetables

Robert C Field. Cambridge World History of Food. Editor: Kenneth F Kiple & Kriemhild Conee Ornelas. Volume 1. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Cruciferae (Brassicaceae), in the mustard family of the caper order (Capparales), are found on all continents except Antarctica. The cruciferae, so named because of the uniform, four-petaled flowers suggestive of a Greek cross, are an example of a natural family and demonstrate a large amount of diversity. Although most are weeds, the family includes significant food crop plants such as broccoli, cabbage, turnip, and radish. Cruciferae are most abundant in areas north of the equator and exhibit greatest variety in temperate and arid regions. The Mediterranean region is generally considered the site of the family’s origination. Nonetheless, many of these cultigens appear to be native to northern Europe, and Reed C. Rollins (1993: 1) contends that the Irano-Turanian region of Eastern Europe and western Asia was the birthplace of at least some members of this plant family. A precise number of species and genera of the cruciferae is undetermined, although estimates range from 340 to 400 genera and 3,000 to 3,500 species (Vaughan, Macleod, and Jones 1976: vii; Rollins 1993: 2).


The classification of cruciferae presents a challenge because of the large number of members and their unusually homogeneous nature (Hedge and Rechinger 1968: 1). But basic characteristics, both macroscopic and microscopic, mark the family as a whole. Typically the radial flower is characterized by the uniformity of its structure. This already mentioned flower type, four petals in the shape of a Greek cross, is common to a large majority of this family’s species. However, this pattern is altered by deviations, particularly in the structure of the stamen, flowers, and calyx. This is true of genera such as Romanschulzia, Stanleya, and Warea, and some species of Streptan-thus, Lepidium, and Megacarpaea (Hedge and Rechinger 1968: 1-2; Rollins 1993: 2).

The fruits of the cruciferae, like the floral construction, are fundamentally homogeneous but can demonstrate significant variation in morphology. They play a key role in classification, along with developmental aspects of the plants, such as lifespan, floral maturation, seed germination, and possibly variations in sepal or petal formations (Hedge and Rechinger 1968: 1-2; Rollins 1993: 3).

In addition to a wide variety of macroscopic characteristics, several microscopic features may help identify the cruciferae group, such as the cell shape and configurations, as well as seed mucus (Hedge and Rechinger 1968: 2). A survey of the cruciferae group reveals one of the widest ranges of taxonomic characteristics among plant families, encompassing about 20 usable traits, sometimes existing in six or more states. Because of this high number of features, it is not unusual for authorities to emphasize different characteristics, resulting in, at times, a rather varied system of classification (Hedge and Rechinger 1968: 2).

The focus of this chapter is only on those genera and species associated with food or food products. Most of these species fall within Brassica, the best-known genus. Its 35 to 50 species and numerous varieties originated primarily in Europe, the Mediterranean, and Eurasia and include Brassica oleracea (cabbage, kale and collards, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, and kohlrabi, also known as Bras-sica caulorapa); Brassica pekinensis (Chinese cabbage); Brassica nigra (black mustard, also known as Sinapis nigra); Brassica alba (table mustard, also known as Sinapis alba);Brassica juncea (leaf mustard, also known as Sinapis juncea); Brassica napobrassica (rutabaga); and Brassica rapaor Brassica campestris (turnips).There are, however, other significant food-producing members of this family, such asRaphanus sativus (radish) and Nasturtium officianale (watercress).

Cruciferae as a Cultivated Food Source

In Europe wild ancestors of the turnip and radish were gathered in prehistoric times, and most of these vegetables have been cultivated and used since the earliest days of recorded history. They are discussed extensively by classical Greek scholars like Theophrastus, and Roman writers, including Marcus Porcius Cato and Lucius Junius Moderatus Columella, as well as in chronicles of food and daily life in medieval and Renaissance Europe, such as The Four Seasons of the House of Cerruti (Spencer 1984). This book, compiled in the late 1300s, is based on the manuscript of an eleventh-century Arab physician living in northern Italy. The work describes the foods, drinks, and spices common in that region, along with practices considered good for health. Many cruciferous vegetables were grown during medieval and early modern times in the kitchen gardens of Europe, and particularly Britain, to be eaten in stews and salads.

Then cabbage and its varieties were frequently referred to as “cole” or “coleworts,” hence the name “coleslaw” for the popular side dish made with shredded cabbage. In Russia, cabbage, and to a lesser extent, turnips and radishes were important food crops. Along with radishes, a large number of Bras-sica varieties are found in China, where they have been used for centuries. Today, as in earlier periods, the durable and hardy plants of the Cruciferae family continue to play an important part in diets around the globe, and one that seems to increase in importance as more is learned of their nutritional and disease-preventive nature.

Cabbage and Its Varieties

Brassica oleracea includes some of the most significant vegetables used today, such as broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, and of course, countless cabbages. With the exception of Brussels sprouts and kohlrabi, cabbage and its varieties have probably been cultivated since before recorded history (ToussaintSamat 1992: 690). Wild cabbage, the early form of B. oleracea, was a small plant also known as “sea cabbage.” Its leaves were firm and fleshy, fortified by mineral salts from the seawater it grew near, and even today B. oleracea can be found growing wild along the coasts of the English Channel.

Although there are approximately 400 species of cabbage, they can be divided into five groups. The first includes the familiar round, smooth-leafed cabbages that may be white, green, or red, as well as wrinkled-leafed varieties like Savoy. The second group comprises pointed cabbages like European spring and Chinese cabbages. A third category consists of cabbages with abnormally large, budding stems, as for example, Brussels sprouts. Green curly types such as kale represent a fourth group. These are used especially for animal food or for decoration of dishes for presentation, although kale is also featured in some famous soups, and collard greens make frequent appearances on many tables. The last category is made up of flowering cabbages such as cauliflower and broccoli (Toussaint-Samat 1992: 693).

Cabbage. Cabbage is the most durable and successful variety of B. oleracea. It is a versatile plant that can be found growing in almost every climate in the world, ranging from subarctic to semitropical. Such an ability to adapt to a wide variety of climatic conditions has enabled the vegetable to survive since prehistoric times. Although initially grown for its oily seeds, cabbage began to be used as a vegetable after people discovered that its green leaves were edible raw or cooked. Its consumption was confined to Asia and to Europe, however, as Neolithic Near Eastern peoples, Hebrews, and Egyptians did not use the plant.

In ancient Greece the writer Theophrastus noted three types of cabbage: curly-leafed, smooth-leafed, and wild. While comparing the curly-leafed and the smooth-leafed varieties he observed that one bore either inferior seeds or none whatsoever. Unfortunately, he did not identify the one to which he referred, but he did say that the curly-leafed kind had better flavor and larger leaves than the smooth-leafed variety. Theophrastus described wild cabbage as having small round leaves with many branches and leaves. The plant had a strong medicinal taste and was used by physicians to ease or cure stomach problems (Theophrastus 1977, 2: 85).

The Roman agronomist Cato the Elder (234-149 B.C.) also noted the medicinal value of cabbage, which, he contended, “surpasses [that of] all other vegetables.” Whether eaten cooked or raw, cabbage was believed beneficial to digestion and to be an excellent laxative. Acknowledging the same three types of cabbage identified by Theophrastus, Cato agreed that the wild variety held the best medicinal value and wrote that it could be used as a poultice for all types of wounds, sores, or swellings. In addition, he advised “in case of deafness, macerate cabbage with wine, press out the juice, and instil warm into the ear, and you will soon know that your hearing is improved” (Cato 1954: 151, see also 141, 145). Both the Greeks and Romans believed that eating cabbage during a banquet would prevent drunkenness, and it has been pointed out that “the B vitamins contained in cabbage leaves do seem to have soothing and oxygenating qualities, very welcome when the mind is clouded by the fumes of alcohol. Research at a Texan [sic] university extracted a substance from cabbage which is useful in the treatment of alcoholism” (Tous-saint-Samat 1992: 691).

In addition, cabbage was apparently inimical to fruits that could provide alcohol. Greek and Roman writers noted that cabbage was “hostile” to grapevines used for making wine. This is thought to be true even today: “Mediterranean farmers never plant it near vineyards in case bees transfer its odour to the bunches of grapes. Nor is it grown near beehives, because it might taint the flavour of the honey” (Tous-saint-Samat 1992: 691).

Don Brothwell and Patricia Brothwell (1969) have written that the Romans favored two cabbage varieties known a scymae and cauliculi and pointed out that some scholars have mistaken cauliculi for Brussels sprouts when it was actually cabbage shoots or cabbage asparagus. Cymae is usually interpreted as sprouting broccoli and was apparently affordable only by the wealthier elements of Roman society. Moreover, by the time of Julius Caesar (100-44 B.C.), the Romans had enlarged cabbage, lavishing such attention on it and cultivating it to such a size that the poor of Rome could not afford to buy it (Toussaint Samat 1992: 692). This interest in cabbage by the wealthy was apparently new because the vegetable had seldom been mentioned since the work of Cato, suggesting dietary distinctions between wealthier and poorer Romans that limited the consumption of ordinary cabbage to the latter. According to Brothwell and Brothwell (1969: 118),”this is borne out by Juvenal’s satire describing the differences between the food of the patron and that of his poor client – the patron has olives to garnish his excellent fish, the client finds cabbage in his ‘nauseous dish.'”

Although the Romans introduced garden varieties of cabbage to northern Europe and Britain, it was not an entirely new food plant in these regions. On the basis of linguistic evidence, Anne C. Wilson (1974: 195) has pointed out that wild cabbage was used as a food source by Iron Age Celts living along the Atlantic coast of Europe prior to their migration to the British Isles. When the Romans did introduce their garden varieties of cabbage, she suggested the Celts favored an open-headed variety because of its similarity to this wild cabbage. However, due to the constant threat of famine during this era, the Celts continued to depend on the hardier wild variety as a safeguard against starvation (Wilson 1974: 196-7).

The fourteenth-century book The Four Seasons, mentioned previously, indicates that cabbage continued to enjoy a reputation for medicinal value in Renaissance Italy, although the work mentions some sources that thought cabbage bad for the blood and found its only redeeming quality to be its ability to “clear obstructions,” of what kind we are left to wonder. On a less obscure note, cabbage was believed able to “restore a lost voice,” and if its juice was cooked with honey and used sparingly as eyedrops it was believed to improve vision (Spencer 1984: 102).

Carroll L. Fenton and Herminie B. Kitchen (1956) divided cultivated cabbage into two main types – the hard-headed and the loose-headed, or Savoy cabbage. It is most likely that loose-headed cabbage evolved directly from wild cabbage found near the Mediterranean and Atlantic coasts of Europe. Its ridged leaves form a head at the top of a very short stalk. By contrast, hard-headed cabbage leaves are wound tightly around each other and around the stalk or “heart.” It is believed that hard-headed cabbage developed in northern Europe. Because it does not grow well in warm climates, the Greeks and Romans did not cultivate it. Thus, it was probably developed by the Celts and has been cultivated by the Germans since ancient times. By the 1300s, hard-headed cabbage was common in England, and British soldiers introduced it in Scotland before 1650 (Fenton and Kitchen 1956: 74; Toussaint-Samat 1992: 692).

At first cabbage was an important crop in individual family plots known as kitchen gardens, but by the eighteenth century in England the cultivation of cabbage, along with many other vegetables, had expanded beyond kitchen gardens to the fields (Wilson 1974: 329; Braudel 1981, 1: 170). As early as 1540, Jacques Cartier grew hard-headed cabbages in Canada, and Native Americans used his seeds to plant cabbages along with beans, squash, and corn (Fenton and Kitchen 1956: 74).

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the Russians have been among the world’s most important consumers of hard-headed cabbage – an item of diet that has been a fundamental part of Russian cuisine for many centuries. It has been especially enjoyed pickled or prepared as cabbage soup called shchii. Usually flavored with meat fat or small chunks of meat, this soup consists of chopped cabbage, barley meal, salt, and a touch of kvass (Smith and Christian 1984: 252, 275-6).

Collards and kale. Collards (collard greens) and kale are varieties of B. oleracea that do not form heads. In fact, kale is very similar to sea cabbage (Fenton and Kitchen 1956: 72), and the primary difference between collard greens, a type of kale, and kale itself is leaf shape. Kale has a short, thick stalk and crinkly blue-green leaves that grow on leaf-stems, whereas collard greens have smooth, broad, yellowish green leaves (Fenton and Kitchen 1956: 72). Although the precise area of origin of collards and kale is unknown, it was most likely in Asia Minor or in the Mediterranean region, where both have been cultivated since prehistoric times. The Greeks and Romans grew several varieties of both kale and collard greens at least 2,200 years ago, followed about 200 years later by Germans and Saxons in northern Europe. They, or quite possibly the Romans, brought these plants to France and Great Britain. For nearly a thousand years kale and collards were the main winter vegetables in England. European colonists carried the seeds to the Americas. Kale and collards were cultivated in western Hispaniola before 1565, and by colonists in Virginia by at least 1669.

Most collards are similar in appearance, but kale has many varieties, some short and some very tall, such as a type of kale grown in England that reaches 8 or 9 feet in height. Today in the United States collards are grown predominantly in the South. An old and popular variety, ‘Georgia collards’, is characterized by stems 2 to 4 feet high, with leaves growing only at the top. Others include the ‘Blue Stem’, ‘Green Glaze’, ‘Louisiana’, and ‘Vates Non-Heading’. Kale’s principal types are ‘Scotch’, ‘Blue’, and ‘Siberian’ (Fenton and Kitchen 1956: 72-4; Carcione and Lucas 1972: 63-4).

Broccoli and cauliflower. Although well known today, broccoli and cauliflower are varieties of B. oleracea that are rarely mentioned in historical sources, despite being two of the oldest cultivated cabbage varieties. This may be because they were not well differentiated in those sources from the more recognizable cabbage. Jane O’Hara-May (1977: 251) has noted that in Elizabethan England the term “cabbage” referred to “the compact heart or head of the plant,” whereas the entire plant was known as cabbage-cole or cole-wort, a term applied to all varieties of cabbage.

Both broccoli and cauliflower, also called varieties of colewort, were cultivated “over 2,500 years ago in Italy or on the island of Cyprus” (Fenton and Kitchen 1956: 76), and broccoli, at least, was a part of Greek and Roman diets more than 2,000 years ago, although apparently it did not reach England until after 1700. When broccoli was introduced, in all likelihood it came from Italy because the English called it “Italian asparagus.” In North America, broccoli was referred to in an 1806 book on gardening and grown regularly by Italian immigrants in private plots, but it was largely unknown to the public until the 1920s. It was because of effective marketing on the part of the D’Arrigo Brothers Company, which grew the vegetable, that demand for broccoli skyrocketed in the early 1930s, and it became “an established crop and an accepted part of the American diet” (Fenton and Kitchen 1956: 76; Carcione and Lucas 1972: 23). Today a major variety of broccoli is the ‘Italian Green’ or ‘Calabrese’, named after the Italian province of Calabria. Its large central head consists of bluish-green flower buds, called curds. ‘De Cicco’ is another popular variety that resembles the Calabrese but is lighter green in color. Chinese broccoli, also known as Gai Lon, “is more leaf than flower.” It is light green in color, with small flower buds and large leaves on a long shank (Carcione and Lucas 1972: 23).

Through selective cultivation of sprouting broccoli, gardeners of long ago were able to produce ever larger clusters that were lighter in color and eventually became cauliflower broccoli and cauliflower. In ancient Greece cauliflower was popular, but after that its popularity declined in the West, where it was little used until the era of Louis XIV (Toussaint-Samat 1992: 691). The vegetable reached England toward the end of the Elizabethan era as part of an influx of new vegetables from Italy and France (Wilson 1974: 362; Braudel 1981, 1: 223), and, in a list of 18 coleworts compiled in 1633, was identified as “Cole Florie” or “Colieflorie” and sold in London markets as “Cyprus coleworts” (O’Hara-May 1977: 251).

Although it is unclear when cauliflower arrived in North America, a number of varieties could be found in seed catalogs by the 1860s (Fenton and Kitchen 1956: 76; Carcione and Lucas 1972: 34). In all European countries, cauliflower is primarily a summer vegetable. It is very popular in Italy – the leading producer in Europe – where it comes in both bright purple and bright green colors. In the United States, typically, one can find only creamy, ivory-white cauliflower. Three of the most widely cultivated varieties in the United States are of the snowball type: ‘Early Snowball’, ‘Super Snowball’, and ‘Snowdrift’. A larger, more leafy kind is the ‘Danish Giant’ grown primarily in the American Midwest (Carcione and Lucas 1972: 34; Toussaint-Samat 1992: 694).

Kohlrabi. A variety of B. oleracea, kohlrabi is just 400 to 500 years old and thus a relative newcomer to the cabbage genus of Brassica. It is one of the few vegetables with an origin in northern Europe. First described in 1554, kohlrabi was known in Germany, England, Italy, and Spain by the end of the sixteenth century. Documentation of its cultivation in the United States dates from 1806. Its common name, kohlrabi, is derived from the German Kohl, meaning cabbage, and Rabi, meaning turnip. It was developed by planting seeds from thick, juicy-stemmed cabbage, and the plants evolved into a turnip shape, characterized by slender roots at the bottom, a swelling of the stem into a turnip-sized bulb just above the ground, and leaves similar to those of a turnip sprouting on top (Fenton and Kitchen 1956: 77; Carcione and Lucas 1972: 66). Although more delicate, the kohlrabi’s taste resembles that of a turnip. Europeans grow frilly-leafed varieties of kohlrabi for ornament, whereas in the United States the two common varieties are both food plants (Carcione and Lucas 1972: 66).

Brussels sprouts. Less than 500 years old and native to northern Europe, Brussels sprouts are also a recent addition to B. oleracea. Described as early as 1587, the plant supposedly got its name as the result of its development near the city of Brussels, Belgium. Brussels sprouts were cultivated in England in the seventeenth century and appear to have been introduced into the United States in the nineteenth century, although exactly when, where, and by whom is unclear (Fenton and Kitchen 1956: 76-7; Carcione and Lucas 1972: 25; Wilson 1974: 203).


Often found growing in fields and pastures, the mustard varieties B. nigra and B. alba are characterized by leaves with deep notches and small yellow flowers with four petals forming the shape of a Greek cross, typical of the Cruciferae (Fenton and Kitchen 1956: 66). These mustard varieties evolved from weeds growing wild in central Asia into a food source after humans learned that their pungent seeds improved the taste of meat – a not unimportant discovery in ancient times, when there was no refrigeration and meat was usually a bit tainted (Fenton and Kitchen 1956: 66). Once mustard became recognized as a spice, it was commercially cultivated, and traders carried the seed to China and Japan, Africa, Asia Minor, and Europe.

The Greeks and the Romans first used mustard for medicinal purposes by creating ointments from the crushed seeds and prescribing the leaves as a cure for sore muscles. According to Pliny the Elder, the first-century Roman writer, mustard “cured epilepsy, lethargy, and all deep-seated pains in any part of the body” (1938, I: 64), and also, mustard was an “effective cure for hysterical females” (Carcione and Lucas 1972: 64). In addition to medical applications, the Greeks and Romans came to use the seeds as a spice and the boiled leaves as a vegetable. The Romans also pulverized mustard seeds and added them to grape juice to prevent it from spoiling. This practice later appeared in England, where grape juice was called “must” and both seeds and plants were known as mustseed. Over time, the spelling evolved from “mustseed” to “mustard” (Fenton and Kitchen 1956: 66-7).

By the time of the Middle Ages, mustard was popular as a condiment that seasoned food and stimulated the appetite; it was also used to treat gout and sciatica and as a blood thinner. Caution was advised, however, in smelling mustard powder, although the risk of its rising to the brain could be averted by using almonds and vinegar in its preparation (Spencer 1984: 47).

Of the two varieties of mustard that were cultivated in the United States before 1806, both “ran wild,” becoming weeds, as did another type, the Indian mustard, grown for greens (Fenton and Kitchen 1956: 67-8). Today, India, California, and Europe supply most of the world’s mustard. Joe Carcione and Bob Lucas noted that wild mustard, also called “Calutzi,” colors the California hills a brilliant yellow in springtime. Commercially grown types include ‘Elephant Ears’, which have large plain leaves, and the curly-leafed varieties, ‘Fordhood Fancy’ and ‘Southern Curled’ (Carcione and Lucas 1972: 64).The dry seeds are crushed to produce oil and ground into powder, which is the basis of the condiment.

Chinese Brassica

A large variety of green vegetables are grown in China, and prominent, particularly in the north, are several types of Brassica that are native Chinese cultigens. As with cruciferous vegetables in general, their exact classifications are controversial and difficult to sort out. The most common are B. pekinensis, Bras-sica chinensis, and B. juncea. The long, cylindrical-headed B. pekinensis, known as Pai ts’ai, or Chinese cabbage, and by numerous colloquial names in different languages, has white, green-edged leaves wrapped around each other in a tall head reminiscent of celery. The nonheaded B. chinensis, identified as ch’ing ts’ai in Mandarin and pak choi in Cantonese, has dark green, oblong or oval leaves resembling chard, growing on white stalks. Descriptions of pak choi and pai ts’ai exist in Chinese books written before the year A.D. 500, although both were probably developed even earlier. However, it was not until the early twentieth century that they became commonly known in North America (Fenton and Kitchen 1956: 68; Anderson and Anderson 1977: 327), ironically at a time when Chinese immigration into the United States and Canada was all but nonexistent. It is possible that their expanded use in North America came with the growth of second and third generations of Chinese populations in North America.

Brassica juncea, recognized as chieh ts’ai in Mandarin and kaai choi in Cantonese, has characteristics similar to B. chinensis. Also important in China are Brassica alboglabra, named kaai laan in Cantonese, which are similar to collard greens; B. campestris, the Chinese rapeseed that is a major oil-producing crop (canola oil in the West); and several minor crops including B. oleracea, recently introduced from the West. Although quite distinctive, the Cantonese choi sam or “vegetable heart” is considered to be a form of B. chinensis (Anderson and Anderson 1977: 327).

Along with radishes, these Brassica cultigens are the most significant “minor” crops grown in southern China and, combined with rice and soybeans, constitute the diet of millions. Cabbage or mustard greens stir-fried in canola oil and seasoned with chillies or preserved soybean constitutes a nutritionally sound meal without the use of animal products or plants that require large areas of land and are overly labor intensive. Chinese Brassica varieties produce large yields and are available throughout the year, particularly in south China (Anderson and Anderson 1977: 328).


According to Reay Tannahill (1988: 11), radishes, R. sativus, were part of the diet of prehistoric hunter-gatherer cultures of Europe and have been grown and eaten, especially pickled, in the Orient for thousands of years. Because of the radish’s antiquity and the many varieties that have been cultivated all over the Old World, including the Orient, its precise origin is obscure. Early radishes were probably large enough to be used as a food and not merely as a salad decoration or appetizer. The leaves may also have been eaten as greens (Brothwell and Brothwell 1969: 110).

Cultivated radish varieties were transported across Asia to Egypt about 4,000 years ago, where the Egyptians “ate radish roots as vegetables and made oil from the seeds” (Fenton and Kitchen 1956: 69; see also Darby, Ghalioungui, and Grivetti 1977, II: 664). Two radishes were discovered in the necropolis of Illahoun (Twelfth Dynasty), and the leaves and roots of the specific Egyptian radish variety aegyptiacus have been identified (Darby et al. 1977: 664). Fenton and Kitchen claimed that pictures of radishes were chiseled into the walls of a temple at Karnak, on the River Nile (Fenton and Kitchen 1956: 69). According to William J. Darby, Paul Ghalioungui, and Louis Grivetti, however, the evidence of radish use in ancient Egypt is primarily literary, particularly from Pliny’s Natural History. They pointed out that in all likelihood radishes in Egypt were valued for oil produced from their seeds rather than as a food product. The Egyptians also considered the radish to be of medicinal value in curing a now unknown disease called Phtheiriasis. Poorer Egyptians employed radish oil as an inexpensive method of embalming, using it as an enema for emptying the intestines (Darby et al. 1977: 664, 785).

Theophrastus observed that in ancient Greece there existed five varieties of radishes: ‘Corinthian’, ‘Cleonae’, ‘Leiothasian’, ‘Amorea’, and ‘Boeotian’. He noted that those types with smooth leaves had a sweeter and more pleasant taste, and those having rough leaves tasted sharp. Unfortunately, he did not associate varieties with leaf type (Theophrastus 1977, 2: 81-3). Fenton and Kitchen suggested that the Greeks were so fond of radishes that they used golden dishes to offer them to their god Apollo, whereas silver dishes were sufficient for beets, and turnips warranted only bowls of lead (Fenton and Kitchen 1956: 69).

Columella’s instructions about the cultivation of radishes establishes their presence in Rome (Columella 1960, 3: 157, 165-9), and Pliny also wrote about the common use of radishes. He indicated that they were grown extensively for their seed oil, but that as a food, he found them a “vulgar article of diet” that “have a remarkable power of causing flatulence and eructation” (Brothwell and Brothwell 1969: 110).

Radishes were introduced to England by the occupying Romans and were known to Anglo-Saxon and Germanic peoples by the early medieval era. Like cabbage, radishes were common in English kitchen gardens by the fifteenth century (Wilson 1974: 196-7, 205), and they reached England’s American colonies early in the seventeenth century. Europeans occasionally ate raw radishes with bread, but more common was the use of the roots in a sauce served with meat to stimulate the appetite. So highly did the great Italian composer Gioacchino Rossini regard radishes that they were one of the Four Hors d’Oeuvres in his famous opera. For others, however, radishes have inspired mistrust. A Plague Pamphlet, printed in London in 1665, noted that the appearance of the dread disease was the result of “eating radishes, a cat catter wouling … immoderate eating of caviare and anchoves, tame pigeons that flew up and down an alley, [and] drinking strong heady beer” (Carcione and Lucas 1972: 104).

Radishes are used today mostly as an appetizer and in salads, and sometimes the young, tender leaves are boiled and served as greens. Radish varieties are numerous, and they come in many sizes (ranging from cherry- to basketball-size), shapes (round, oval, or oblong), and colors (white, red and white, solid red, or black). But their flavors are very similar. Most common in the United States are small, round, red or white varieties, including ‘Cherry Belle’ and ‘Comet’. The ‘White Icicle’ is a long and narrow white radish. Oriental radishes are the most spectacular, with some, like the Japanese daikon, reaching several feet in length (Fenton and Kitchen 1956: 69; Carcione and Lucas 1972: 104). Europeans grow large, hot-tasting winter radishes, which they store in cool, dark cellars and eat during cold weather. According to an old description, winter radishes could reach a weight of 100 pounds (Fenton and Kitchen 1956: 69). Methods of serving radishes in the various parts of Asia include pickling them in brine, boiling them like potatoes, eating them raw, and cooking them as fresh vegetables (Fenton and Kitchen 1956: 69-70).


Grown since ancient times, the turnip, B. rapa or B. campestris, has long been prized as a staple winter food, and in some areas it has been the only winter produce available. According to Brothwell and Broth-well, turnip varieties seem to have been indigenous to the region between the Baltic Sea and the Caucasus, later spreading to Europe (Brothwell and Brothwell 1969: 110). Today turnips continue to grow wild in eastern Europe and Siberia.They are almost perfectly round and have white flesh and thin, rough leaves covered by prickly hairs (Fenton and Kitchen 1956: 70). Their cultivation predates recorded history, and excellent storing qualities must have made the vegetable a dependable winter food for livestock as well as people (Brothwell and Brothwell 1969: 110-11).

In antiquity, the name “turnip” also referred to radishes and other root vegetables save leeks and onions (Darby et al. 1977, II: 665). Several varieties of turnips – round, long, and flat – were used by the Romans prior to the Christian Era. Greek and Roman writers indicated that the use was limited largely to “the poorer classes and country folk.” Theophrastus wrote that there was disagreement over the number of varieties; he also provided some instructions for their cultivation. He stated that like the radish, the turnip’s root grew best and sweetest in wintertime (Theophrastus 1977, 2: 83). Columella pointed out that turnips should not be overlooked as an important crop because they were a filling food for country people and a valuable source of fodder for livestock. In addition, Columella provided his readers with a recipe for pickling turnips in a mustard and vinegar liquid (Columella 1960, 1: 171, 3: 331-3). Apicius recommended mixing them with myrtle berries in vinegar and honey as a preservative. Pliny considered them the third most important agricultural product north of the Po River, and wrote that the leaves were also eaten. Especially interesting was his opinion that turnip tops were even better tasting when they were yellow and half dead (Pliny 1938, 5: 269-71; Brothwell and Brothwell 1969: 111).

The medieval chronicle The Four Seasons noted that if soaked in vinegar or brine, turnips could be preserved for up to a year. Sweet-tasting and thin-skinned types were considered the best. Medicinally, the turnip was believed good for the stomach, capable of relieving constipation, and effective as a diuretic. In preparing turnips, the advice was for prolonged cooking, even cooking them twice, to avoid indigestion, flatulence, and swelling. If these problems did occur, however, an emetic of vinegar and salt was recommended as a remedy (Spencer 1984: 109).

Like cabbage and radishes, turnips were a part of vegetable gardens in Roman Britain. By A.D. 1400, they were common in France, Holland, and Belgium, and at that date were among a quite small number of vegetables that had been known and available in northern Europe for centuries (Fenton and Kitchen 1956: 70; Carcione and Lucas 1972: 123). Explorers and colonists brought turnips to North America in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, where, because they flourish in cool weather, they became a summer crop in the north and a winter crop in the south. Modern varieties are generally less than 5 inches thick, but a turnip weighing 100 pounds was once grown in California, and during the 1500s, most European turnips weighed 30 to 40 pounds (Fenton and Kitchen 1956: 71). Commercially, there are many varieties grown today, and although shape and skin color may differ, like radishes the taste remains the same. The ‘Purple-Top White Globe’ and the ‘Purple-Top Milan’ are grown for their roots, and ‘Shogoin’, an Oriental variety, is harvested for its tender greens (Carcione and Lucas 1972: 123-4).


Rutabagas are occasionally referred to as “Swede turnips” or just “Swedes” because they were developed and grown in Sweden before A.D. 1400. According to Carcione and Lucas (1972: 123), rutabagas appear to be “the result of a meeting of a swinging Swedish turnip and an equally willing cabbage.” Although closely related to the turnip, the rutabaga, B. napobrassica, is a relatively modern vegetable that is larger and longer than the turnip, with a milder taste and flesh that is yellow-colored rather than white. In addition, its leaves are smooth and thick, whereas turnip leaves are thin, rough, and prickly (Fenton and Kitchen 1956: 70). Cattle and pigs feed on raw rutabagas, but people eat the roots boiled and buttered (Fenton and Kitchen 1956: 71; Drummond and Wilbraham 1991: 180).

Rutabagas spread from Sweden to central Europe and the northern regions of Italy, where in medieval times they were called “Swedes” and housewives were advised to accept only those that were garden-fresh. Although “Swedes” reputedly bloated the stomach, they were delicious when prepared with meat broth. Moreover, they were thought to “activate the bladder,” and “if eaten with herbs and abundant pepper, they arouse young men to heights of sexual adventurousness” (Spencer 1984: 58).

Rutabagas were cultivated prior to 1650 in Bohemia, and in 1755 they were introduced to England and Scotland from Holland, where they were initially referred to as “turnip-rooted cabbage,””Swedes,” or “Swedish turnips.”American gardeners were growing rutabagas by 1806, and today, Canada – along with the states of Washington and Oregon – supplies the United States with rutabagas, which explains their often being called “Canadian turnips” by Americans. Two of the best-known rutabaga types are the ‘Laurentian’ and the ‘Purple-Top Yellow’ (Carcione and Lucas 1972: 123-4).


Native to Asia Minor and the Mediterranean region, watercress (Nasturtium officinale) grows wild wherever shallow moving water is found. It is characterized by long stems and small thick leaves (Carcione and Lucas 1972: 126). According to Brothwell and Brothwell, the Romans consumed watercress with vinegar to help cure unspecified mental problems, and both Xenophon, the ancient Greek general, and the Persian King Xerxes required their soldiers to eat the plant in order to maintain their health (Brothwell and Brothwell 1969: 122; Carcione and Lucas 1972: 126). Ancient cress seeds found in Egypt probably arrived from Greece and Syria, where cress is found among a list of Assyrian plants. Dioscorides maintained that watercress came from Babylon (Brothwell and Brothwell 1969: 122-3).

Stronger-flavored kinds of watercress were preferred in medieval Italy, where they allegedly provided a variety of medicinal benefits. Although watercress was blamed for headaches, it supposedly strengthened the blood, aroused desire, cured children’s coughs, whitened scars, and lightened freckles. Additionally, three leaves “picked with the left hand and eaten immediately will cure an overflow of bile” (Spencer 1984: 19).

Cultivation of watercress for sale in markets dates to about 1800 in England, although wild watercress was doubtless gathered by humans for many millennia. Brought to the United States by early settlers, watercress can now be found throughout the country. Soil-cultivated relatives of watercress include peppergrass (also called curly cress), upland cress, lamb’s cress, cuckoo f lower, lady’s smock, mayflower, pennycress, and nasturtiums (Carcione and Lucas 1972: 126).

Nutrition, Disease Prevention, and Cruciferous Vegetables

Cruciferous vegetables have substantial nutritional value. They contain significant amounts of beta-carotene (the precursor of vitamin A), vitamin C (ascorbic acid), and “nonnutritive chemicals” such as indoles, flavones, and isothiocyanates, which contribute to the prevention of diet-related diseases and disorders such as blindness and scurvy. In addition, recent investigations have shown them to be effective in warding off several types of cancer. Studies have linked diets high in vitamin A to cancer prevention, and research also indicates that chemicals like indoles inhibit the effects of carcinogens. Vitamin C is recognized as an effective antioxidant, which is thought to be preventive against the development of some cancers and an inhibitor of the progress of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).

Moreover, the substances known as antioxidants are critical in the maintenance of homeostasis, a state of physiological equilibrium among the body’s functions and its chemical components. Molecules that form the human body are typically held together by the magnetic attraction between their electrons. Occasionally, however, these molecules exist in an oxidized state, meaning that they have unpaired electrons and are seeking out “molecular partners,” often with potentially harmful effects. In this condition, these molecules are known as “free radicals,” and because they can react more freely with their surrounding environment, they are capable of disrupting many finely tuned processes essential in maintaining good health. In some cases, free radicals serve no particular function and are simply the waste products of bodily processes, but in others, the body’s immune system uses them to fight diseases. Yet even when useful, free radicals can damage nearby tissue and impair bodily functions. To control such damage, the human body uses anti-oxidants to neutralize the effects of free radicals. Unfortunately, there are often inadequate amounts of antioxidants to eliminate all of the free radicals, and there are also periods or conditions during which the number of free radicals increases along with the damage they inflict. This is particularly true when people are infected with HIV or have developed cancer (Romeyn 1995: 42-3).

In the cases of both HIV and cancer, vitamin C reacts with and neutralizes free radicals. This vitamin also helps increase the overall antioxidant ability of vitamin E by preventing certain functions of vitamin E that can actually inhibit the effects of its antioxidant characteristics. Specifically with regard to cancer prevention, vitamin C, of which cruciferous vegetables have high levels, appears to significantly reduce the risk of contracting stomach or esophageal cancers. Other, less conclusive studies suggest that vitamin C may also inhibit the development of bladder and colon cancer. In addition to its role as an antioxidant, vitamin C acts to inhibit the formation of cancer-causing nitrosamines, which are created by cooking or by digesting nitrites found in food.

In citing over a dozen studies worldwide, Patricia Hausman (1983: 24-5) noted that diets rich in vitamin A provide a surprising amount of protection from cancer in eight different organs. The strongest evidence links vitamin A to the prevention of lung, stomach, and esophageal cancer. Although less conclusive, other studies have recognized the potential of vitamin A to protect against cancer of the mouth, colon, rectum, prostate, and bladder.

The term, “vitamin A”, encompasses many substances that can fulfill the body’s requirements for this nutrient. Retinol is the form found in foods derived from animal products. Beta-carotene and carotenoids are found in fruits and vegetables; however, carotenoids are only a minor source. For most bodily functions that require vitamin A, any one of these forms will suffice, but it is beta-carotene that is tied most closely to cancer prevention (Hausman 1983: 24-5).

Although it is unclear how beta-carotene aids in the prevention of cancer, some chemists have suggested that it might act as an antioxidant. However, Eileen Jennings has noted that there is little doubt concerning the significance of vitamin A as it relates to gene regulation: “The gene regulator and antiproliferation effects of vitamin A may be the entire explanation for the anticancer effect of vitamin A” (1993: 149). Although the final determination of beta-carotene’s antioxidant qualities awaits further study, its ability to act as a cancer preventive has been demonstrated, and thus, it is recommended that the cruciferous vegetables containing high levels of this substance be eaten frequently.

Scientific studies also have demonstrated that cruciferous vegetables further limit cancerous growth because they contain small quantities of indoles, flavones, and isothiocyanates. According to Jennings, these nonnutritive chemicals have been shown “to either stimulate production of enzymes that convert toxic chemicals to less toxic forms or interfere with the reaction of carcinogens with DNA” (1993: 223). Hausman (1983: 82-3) wrote that the enzyme system that produces these cancer inhibitors is recognized as the “mixed function oxidase system.” Because the family of cruciferous vegetables contains such high levels of these inhibitors, particularly indoles as well as high levels of beta-carotene and vitamin C, the Committee on Diet, Nutrition, and Cancer of the National Academy of Sciences in 1982 emphasized eating these vegetables often. Broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, and cabbage have all been linked to lowering the risk of developing stomach and colon cancer, and some studies indicated a possible connection to a reduced risk of rectal cancer.

The absence of beta-carotene and vitamin C in the diet is also linked to the development of deficiency diseases such as “night blindness” and scurvy. Because of the unavailability of fruits or cruciferous vegetables and other foods containing these nutrients, in many parts of the developing world deficiency diseases remain common. Extended vitamin A deficiency results in a severe defect called xerophthalmia, which affects the cornea of the eye. More often this deficiency causes “night blindness,” or nyctalopia, which is the inability to see in a dim light.This problem has been very common in the East for several centuries, and according to Magnus Pyke (1970: 104, 127), at least until the past two or three decades, vitamin A deficiency annually caused thousands of cases of blindness in India.

The earliest prescribed treatment of an eye disorder thought to be night blindness is found in the Ebers Papyrus, an Egyptian medical treatise dating from around 1600 B.C. Rather than prescribing the regular consumption of cruciferous vegetables, however, it suggested using ox liver, itself high in vitamin A, which it claimed was “very effective and quick-acting.” Hippocrates and Galen were also familiar with night blindness, the former recommending the consumption of ox liver (in honey) as a remedy. Later Roman medical writings gave similar advice, and Chinese literature contained descriptions of this eye condition by A.D. 610 (Brothwell and Brothwell 1969: 179-80). As already noted, the work on foods in medieval Italy, The Four Seasons, contended that the cooked juice of cabbage mixed with honey and used sparingly as an eyedrop improved vision (Spencer 1984: 102).

Like night blindness, scurvy, a disease caused by an insufficient intake of vitamin C, continues to be a serious deficiency disease of the developing world. One of the primary functions of vitamin C is the production of collagen, which helps to build new tissue, in a sense maintaining the very structure of the human body. It can reduce lung tissue damage caused by the activation of the body’s immune system and is important to the production of hormones, steroids, and neurotransmitters. It is also required for the “conversion of folate into its active form” and aids in iron absorption (Pyke 1970: 114; Hausman 1983: 43; Romeyn 1995: 44-5).A prolonged lack of vitamin C causes the weakening and breakdown of the body’s cell structure and tissue, with scurvy the visible symptom of this phenomenon.

Interestingly, humans are susceptible to scurvy only because of an unfortunate biochemical shortcoming in their genetic makeup. Unlike most animals, humans and four other species are unable to synthesize vitamin C and therefore will suffer from scurvy if the vitamin C intake from their food is insufficient for a long enough period of time (Pyke 1970: 115).

Brothwell and Brothwell suggest that deficiencies in vitamin C were rare prior to the appearance of urban development (beginning in the Neolithic era) because hunter-gatherers had more diversity in their diet. Hippocrates has been credited with the earliest mention of scurvy when he described an unpleasant condition characterized by “frequent haemorrhages” and “repulsive ulceration of the gums” – both features of the disease. Pliny also acknowledged the presence of this condition (which he called stomacace) in Roman troops stationed in the Rhine region. Writings from the Middle Ages contain many references to scurvy as well, implying that it was prevalent in the Europe of that era (Brothwell and Brothwell 1969: 181).

Before the introduction of the white potato, the disease was common in the spring in the northern countries of Europe. It has also ravaged sailors during long sea voyages, as well as arctic explorers whose provisions consisted mostly of easily preserved food and lacked fresh fruits and vegetables (Pyke 1970: 113-14). But although the disease is of “considerable antiquity,” scurvy occurs infrequently today despite the large numbers of underfed and malnourished people in the world because it is a disease that requires an unusual state of deprivation (Pyke 1970: 112). However, scurvy in children has been reported in recent years in Toronto, Canada, in many communities in India, and in Glasgow, Scotland, and “bachelor scurvy” can occur in instances where older men who live alone fail to consume meals with adequate quantities of vegetables (Pyke 1970: 115).

In order to improve nutritional levels in humans and thus prevent deficiency diseases, as well as improve overall health, Henry M. Munger (1988) has suggested that instead of breeding crops to increase nutrient levels, a more effective, and less expensive, solution is to increase consumption of plants already high in nutritional value. He offered broccoli as an example. Relatively unknown in the United States 50 years ago, broccoli has experienced a dramatic increase in its production, from approximately 200 million pounds in the 1950s to over a billion pounds in 1985. In a 1974 study by M. Allen Stevens on Nutritional Qualities of Fresh Fruits and Vegetables that compares the nutritional values of common fruits and vegetables, broccoli was ranked highest in nutritional value because of its substantial content of vitamins A and C, niacin, riboflavin, and nearly every mineral. Additionally, “based on dry weight, broccoli contains protein levels similar to soybean” (Stevens 1974: 89). In an earlier study by Stevens, however, broccoli was ranked twenty-first in contribution to nutrition, based on a formula derived from its production as well as its nutrient content. But by 1981, that ranking had risen to seventh, a direct result of its increased production and consumption levels (Stevens 1974: 89-90; Munger 1988: 179-80).

Munger has maintained that improved nutrition in tropical developing countries can be achieved by adapting nutritious, temperate crops to tropical conditions or by expanding the use of less familiar, highly nutritious tropical vegetables. Two of his primary illustrations involve cruciferous vegetables. In the first case he cited an adaptation of Japanese cabbage hybrids for cultivation in the more tropical lowlands of the Philippines. This move lowered production costs and made cabbage more accessible and affordable to the general population. A second example, choi-sum or Flowering White Cabbage, a variety of B. campestris, is similar to broccoli and grown near Canton, China. Nearly all parts of this highly nutritious plant are edible. It can be planted and harvested year-round, and its production yield is comparable to that of potatoes and corn in the United States. Because of its efficient production and high nutrient concentration, choi-sum also seems to Munger a good candidate for promotion in tropical developing nations (Munger 1988: 180-1, 183).


The cruciferous family of vegetables includes some of the most nutritionally significant foods produced today. Predominantly European and Asian in origin, these vegetables have a history of cultivation and use that spans many centuries. The ancient Greeks and Romans employed some of them not only as foodstuffs but also for medicinal purposes. They believed that cabbage, for example, could cure a wide range of ailments, from healing wounds to correcting problems with internal organs. In medieval and Renaissance Europe as well as in Russia and China, cruciferous vegetables were found in kitchen gardens and composed an important part of the daily diet. Gradually they were transformed from garden produce into commercial crops and today are abundantly available for sustenance and for good health. Contemporary research suggests a link between cruciferous vegetables and disease prevention. Because of their high levels of vita-min C, beta-carotene, and other disease inhibitors, these food plants help avoid deficiency diseases, prevent some cancers, and retard the development of HIV in the human body. Such findings suggest that the consumption of cruciferous vegetables has a positive effect on health, and consequently they should have a prominent place in the human diet.