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Brassicaceae (brass-ih-case-ee-ay) is home to the mighty Brassica, from rutabagas to radishes, to kales and collards, to broccoli, bok choy, and Brussels sprouts. This one family contributes so much to our vegetable world, a burst of Brassicaceous botanical diversity stemming from just one ancestral plant. After hundreds and thousands of years of humans selecting plants for different traits, the great diversity that is the Brassica family became what it is today.

Just like all of us, plants have to pick and choose where to allocate their precious resources, from the photosynthates they collect from sun to the micronutrients they collect from the soil. What we’re seeing here are different plant parts being allocated more starches & sugars than others.

Kohlrabi sugars go to an enlarged stem. Energy in rutabagas, radishes, and turnips go to their roots. Kales and mustard greens spread their energy out into their leaves. Other plant parts may be edible too, but they just aren’t the plant’s priority. But regardless of the plant’s initial priority, eventually they all shift their priorities to reproduce, resulting in the production of tender spring flowering stalks called raab.

Brassica flowers are either yellow or white, but they all have an iconic four petals. This helps to identify plants when they’re at the end of their lifecycle, but at the beginning when they just emerge from their seeds, you can also tell a Brassica right away from the two heart-shaped cotyledons that proceed their first true leaves.

Plants in the same family tend to have similar ways of reproducing, although not everything is compatible enough to interbreed. But in general, there is a lot of capacity for cross-over amongst Brassicas. Savoy cabbage crossed back into kale gave us rumply Lacinato kale, red kale crossed with Brussels sprouts gave us Kalettes, rutabagas crossed with turnips became the infamous Gilfeather Turnip. The lines between radish and turnip or between mustard and bok choy are blurry.

This ease of cross-over is part of the reason why organic seed growers in Oregon’s Willamette Valley have fought so hard to keep GMO canola out of the region. The Willamette Valley is one of the world’s leading vegetable seed production regions, known for it’s dry Mediterranean summers that are perfect for growing Brassica seed. The presence of thousands of acres of canola seed (grown conventionally for oil) is a serious threat to the maintenance of the breeding lines that farmers have been working to keep alive for years.

Seed farmers work hard to keep their own crops from crossing with each other as well, separating plants either by distance or time. That way when you buy your deep purple mustard green from the seed catalogue, you get the plant you wanted, not some mutant with a faint color and off-flavor. Read more about the great Brassica crisis from Civil Eats.




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