Broccoli is an easy-to-grow vegetable which, ounce for ounce, contains more vitamin C than orange juice and nearly as much calcium as milk. It also contains compounds that act in many ways to build health and prevent cancer.
Broccoli, like many of the most nutritious and delicious plants in our garden, belongs to the cabbage family, officially known as the brassicacea. Besides broccoli and its close relatives, this family also includes turnips, rutabagas, mustards, radishes, the plants which provide canola oil and many oriental greens. The most interesting and familiar species in this family is Brassica oleracea which includes broccoli, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, kohlrabi, cauliflower, kale and collards.
These vegetables which look so different, are really closely related plants with the stem, leaves or flowers modified to produce storage organs which are good to eat. In cabbage it is the terminal bud and surrounding leaves, while in Brussels sprouts, we eat the axillary buds with smaller leaves wrapped around them. Kohlrabi's stem is swollen into a solid vegetable the size of a tennis ball, while the broccoli and cauliflower we eat are just very large flower buds. It's not surprising then that the stems and leaves, as well as the buds of broccoli, are edible. In fact, as full of vitamins and minerals as the broccoli buds are, the leaves contain five times as much vitamin A and much more calcium - twice as much of this important mineral, ounce for ounce, as milk provides.
The buds or florets, the stems and the leaves are also good sources of beta-carotene, iron, phosphorus, potassium and fiber. Other components of broccoli and its relatives are especially useful against cancer. These indoles, monoterpenes, plant sterols and tannins protect against cancer in a variety of ways. Some are antioxidants and others promote our body's production of the enzymes that detoxify carcinogens, or aid those enzymes in their activities. Tests at Johns Hopkins University showed that broccoli was better at inducing these beneficial enzymes than any vegetable except green onions. The variety Saga was the most effective enzyme stimulator. It is also tolerant of summer heat.
Since it's as easy to grow as it is delicious, broccoli's a good place to start your relationship with the cabbage family. Although they prefer cooler weather, I've found that broccoli (or cabbage or Brussels sprouts) seedlings can be set out in the garden almost anytime from April into July.
Broccoli and its relatives need lots of sun and fertile soil with plenty of compost to provide an even supply of moisture and nutrients. Five-to-six inch tall seedlings, set out now, will begin producing heads in about two months and will keep on producing until the heavy freezes of late October or November. Over the next two months, broccoli seeds can also be sown (in flats or in the garden) for a good fall harvest.
Just like many summer flowers, once the central broccoli bud is cut, the plant sends out new buds along its stem. As long as those are cut, the plant will keep producing more. The heads on the side shoots are smaller than the main one, but we still need to chop them for cooking. For maximum production, cut the main head up high on the stem, when it is about three inches across. Keep cutting the buds that develop before they begin to bloom. Left long enough, they will open to the yellow, cross shaped flowers typical of this family, and production will slow down. 'Emperor,' 'Green Valiant' and 'Jaguar' are especially good varieties for a five-month, side-shoot harvest.
Woodchucks and the larva of the white cabbage moth like to eat broccoli, too. The little worm is easy to squish. It's dark green manure pellets are more visible than its broccoli-colored body. Look for the worms on the midrib of the leaf about one week after you first see the moths. I wish I could say that woodchucks are as easy to deal with.
Fresh from the garden, broccoli is a very delicious and economical way to protect your health.
Plant some soon.
This is Bill Duesing, Living on the Earth
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