7 things you didn’t know about brussels sprouts

Think Brussels sprouts are bland and boring? Think again. John Morgan, Brussels Sprouts. CC. https://flic.kr/p/5omcPd

Think Brussels sprouts are bland and boring? Think again. John Morgan, Brussels Sprouts. CC. https://flic.kr/p/5omcPd


When I first saw brussels sprouts at a farmer’s market I was flabbergasted. Who knew that these little cabbages grew along a large stick, looking for all the world like a medieval club?

What were these bizarre little veggies anyways? Why do I suddenly love them after hating them as a child? Okay, adding sautéed bacon and garlic may have something to do with it.

What’s in a name?

Why are they called brussels sprouts? Because it sounds better than Paris sprouts or Rome sprouts?

Brussels sprouts were first grown by the Romans. By 1586 the Belgians were growing them like crazy. They were sold in markets in Brussels, which gave them their name. Wouldn’t it be interesting if other vegetables were named like this?

How did they make it to Canada?

From Belgium the sprouts became popular in England and France. Apparently Thomas Jefferson was a fan, because he introduced them to the United States in 1812. I assume that from there they crept into Canada. They are also grown in Europe and Australia.

Today, most of the sprouts grown in Canada don’t come from Belgium, but are hybrids made in Japan or Holland. Sprouts need a cool climate and are allergic to heat, so Canada is a perfect place for them.

Rolling in green

Ontario grows tonnes of Brussels sprouts. Amanda Slater, Autumn at Barnsdale Gardens https://flic.kr/p/hLHMva

Ontario grows tonnes of Brussels sprouts. Amanda Slater, Autumn at Barnsdale Gardens https://flic.kr/p/hLHMva


Which province in Canada produces the most Brussels sprouts? If you guessed BC, you’re right! Ontario and Quebec are close seconds. Every year, the sprouts harvest in Canada is worth over $7 million. Not bad for a bitter veggie people love to hate.

Apparently Canadians have a bigger taste for sprouts than Americans. When we don’t make enough locally we’ll import some from California. The advent of frozen food also increased demand for brussels sprouts. In Ontario the main variety grown is Jade E. Now doesn’t that sound exotic and exciting?


Speak softly and carry…brussels sprouts?

Brussels sprout stalks look like ideal tools for hunting dinosaurs. Or you could just eat them instead. Photo by Mia, Brussels sprout. CC. https://flic.kr/p/rzRSf

Brussels sprout stalks look like ideal tools for hunting dinosaurs. Or you could just eat them instead. Photo by Mia, Brussels sprout. CC. https://flic.kr/p/rzRSf


Instead of having one head like a lettuce, Brussels sprouts grow multiple heads along the stem. Just when you thought brussels sprouts couldn’t get less horrifying. The main stem is 2-3 feet long and the sprouts are leaf buds that develop along it. Brussels sprouts have mini stems inside, which you’ll see when you cut them in half. And, as I said, it looks like a knobby war club!

The sprouts grow from the bottom of the plant up. They are ready to pull off the stick in fall or early winter.

Full of goodies

Mom was right, Brussels sprouts are good for you. Chris Yarzab, Brussels Sprouts. CC. https://flic.kr/p/czyrXL

Mom was right, Brussels sprouts are good for you. Chris Yarzab, Brussels Sprouts. CC. https://flic.kr/p/czyrXL


What are these green balls good for? Well brussels sprouts have lots of fibre, vitamin A, C and K as well as manganese.

With sprouts, bigger is not better. Small is beautiful and tasty.

Apparently if you draw an X on them with a knife they will cook evenly. Hmm, I might have to try that.

Don’t cook them too long, or they’ll go grey and stinky. If you start smelling sulfur, stop cooking.

Cabbage Patch Kids

Does this look like cabbage or kale to you? There's a good reason for it. Ed Mitchell, Top of a Brussels Sprout Plant. CC. https://flic.kr/p/3eKwrQ

Does this look like cabbage or kale to you? There’s a good reason for it. Ed Mitchell, Top of a Brussels Sprout Plant. CC. https://flic.kr/p/3eKwrQ


There’s a good reason that brussels sprouts look like little cabbages- they’re the same species! In fact, Cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage, kale, kohlrabi and brussels sprouts also belong to the species Brassica oleracea. Just like domestic dogs, these differently-shaped vegetables were created by humans through careful breeding of the wild cabbage.

Just like with dogs, different people bred the plant to do different things. Some wanted huge hunting dogs, others wanted tiny lap-dogs. brussels sprouts are the tiny lapdog.

The original wild cabbage was just a weedy little plant in the Mediterranean with nutritious leaves. Now it’s one of the world’s most important food crops. It looked and tasted a lot like kale and collard greens. Brussels sprouts were a late bloomer, and were the last kind of cabbage that ancient gardeners developed.

Brussels sprout sex

Believe it or not, brussels sprouts have flowers! We don’t think about them because we eat the leaves, but their flowers are yellow with four petals.

Just like different dog breeds, brussels sprouts and cabbage can mate with each other and have babies. I’m just not sure what those babies would look like.

Actually, we know what they’d look like. In 2010, the British company Tozer bred a hybrid of kale and Brussels sprouts. It looks like a stem of frilly spouts. They call it a flower sprout.

Cabbage may look like lettuce, but don’t be fooled! Lettuce is in the sunflower family, while cabbage is the mustard family.

What are you waiting for? Get out there and eat some brussels sprouts!

References

http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/cabbage/
http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/82409/Brussels-sprouts
https://www.ontario.ca/foodland/food/brussels-sprouts
http://www.brussels-sprouts.com/BSINFO.htm
http://botanistinthekitchen.wordpress.com/2012/11/05/the-extraordinary-diversity-of-brassica-oleracea/
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/gardening/howtogrow/fruitandvegetables/10243047/How-many-more-variations-of-cabbage-can-we-breed.html
http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/brussels-sprouts/

Lilac locomotion: Humanity’s bizarre love affair with lilacs

Humans have admired lilacs like these for centuries. Photo by RichardBH. CC. https://www.flickr.com/photos/rbh/5769371225/

Humans have admired lilacs like these for centuries. Photo by RichardBH. CC. https://www.flickr.com/photos/rbh/5769371225/

Lilacs were part of my childhood. We had a lilac bush in my front yard, and the week that it was in bloom I would rush outside and bury my face in its light purple flowers. In Calgary, where the growing season starts quite late, the lilacs always bloomed around exam time in mid-June. For me they were a symbol that spring had finally arrived and that school would soon be over.

I’m a biology nerd and I love how plants work. However, I’m also fascinated by how plants interact with humans. For this post, I’m going to examine lilacs from the biological, and then a cultural perspective, just to see what happens. Here we go.

Botany:

Lilacs are part of the olive family. There are 21 species of lilac. Most of them come from China, and 2 come from Eastern Europe. They do well in Canada because they are good at surviving in cold climates. In fact, they need a cold dormant period to trigger blooming!

A newly planted lilac won’t bloom for a few years, because it’s getting used to the new environment. Once it is well established and comfortable, then it will start flowering.

Human interactions:

Just like the dandelion, in North America the lilac is an alien invader. They are native to China and Eastern Europe, so how on earth did they get to Canada?

Well, it’s a VERY long story.

A bizarre story about humanity’s obsession with pretty purple flowers.

Which when you think about it, is a pretty strange obsession.

Okay, lilacs do have some practical uses. Green dye can be extracted from the flowers and leaves, and oils from the flowers are used in perfumes. They have also been used as treatments for sore mouth, stomach ache and paralysis.

But mostly, people like them because they look and smell nice.

Our story begins in the European Baltic states, the native stomping grounds of the European lilac. Shepherds, entranced by the beauty and aroma of the wild plant, brought lilac bushes back to their homesteads. These lilac flowers were light purple. The word lilac comes from Persian, and means ‘blueish’.

Eventually lilacs made their way to Instanbul via the silk trade routes. Apparently someone thought they were valuable enough to trade.

In 1563, and Austrian ambassador visiting Instanbul fell in love with lilacs and brought them back to Austria and then later to Paris.

Once introduced to the people of France, lilacs spread around Europe like a fluffy purple disease. They moved from garden to garden as people shared cuttings with their neighbors.

Around 1650, European immigrants brought lilacs to North America in their personal luggage. Lilacs quickly adapted to the cold, temperate climate and soon become a common sight in North American colonies. Even Thomas Jefferson and George Washington planted lilacs in their gardens.Eventually, lilacs in North America escaped from cultivation and became a part of the natural environment.

Remember how I said that most lilac species come from China? Well, prior to 1860 most Europeans had never seen them because China had a closed-door policy on trade. However, when China lost the Opium wars and was forced to trade with Europe, lots of Chinese lilac species were ‘discovered’ by Europeans. Enraptured European plant explorers sent home thousands of ‘new’ species, including lilacs.

Compared to this influx of Chinese lilacs, the wild European lilac was staring to look positively drab. In the 1770s people in Europe, wanting flashier colours, started breeding deep purple and white lilacs.

In 1871 in Nancy, France, Victor Lemoine decided that the wild lilacs were simply not interesting enough. He and his family created 200 different lilac cultivars of all different colours and shapes. A cultivar is a variety of plant made artificially by humans. Think of cultivars like dog breeds. A poodle and a bull dog belong to the same species, but they are different forms that humans have created through breeding. Thanks to Lemoine, France became the hub of fine lilac cultivars.

Today there are over 1500 lilac varieties! Compare that to the original 21 species.

Back in North America, people started breeding their own cultivars. In 1874 John Dougall of Windsor Ontario created the first North American cultivar called ‘White Princess Alexandra’. Yay Canadian pride!

In 1878, not content with breeding new cultivars, lilac breeders started combining species from China and Europe that never would have reproduced in the wild. Combining two species like this is called hybridization.

Thankfully for plants, sex between different species isn’t that big a deal. It actually happens quite frequently because the barriers between plant species are much fuzzier than in animals.

Finally, the Canadian Connection! Isabella Preston, the first female hybridizer in Canada, put Canada on the lilac map in 1920. Preston produced the ultimate lilac for Canada’s harsh climate by crossing Chinese lilacs. And she did her work right here in Ottawa, at the Central Experimental Farm! This un-sung Canadian horticulturalist also created Canada-friendly cultivars of roses, lilies, crab apple, and iris.

For anyone living in Ottawa, there is a whole website about lilacs at the Central Experimental Farm, including the best places to find them.

After doing this research, I realized that there are a lot of people throughout history who really cared about lilacs. It was their jobs to make new cultivars to sell to people. Also, people liked lilacs enough to carry them across trade routes and across oceans. Not bad for a hardy little bush with purple flowers!

References:

Click to access cs_syvu.pdf


http://alpenglowlilacgardens.com/index-2.html
http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/340948/lilac
http://www.friendsofthefarm.ca/lilacs/lilachistgenus.htm

Click to access cs_syvu.pdf


http://arboretum.harvard.edu/plants/featured-plants/lilacs/plants-of-history-plants-for-tomorrow/
http://www.nh.gov/lilacs/lilacs/
http://www.science.ca/scientists/scientistprofile.php?pID=280

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