Wednesday, February 21, 2024
Plant Palette

Broccoli – the best of the greens

By Clive Larkman

As adults we all know what food is good for us to eat and we generally know what we should avoid. However, the research suggests that less than 10% of Australian adults eat a healthy diet made up of the correct mix of protein, fruit and vegetables on a daily basis. The nutritional aspect of the Australian diet has been in decline since the middle of last century. The major reason is the ease of access to over-processed food and the perceived cost in time, and dollars, to eat well.

As this issue came to the attention of the government, they started to promote what a good diet should consist of. Although the specifics have changed since the Sixties, the core message hasn’t. A rough summary is a daily intake of five serves of vegetables, two of fruit, three of protein and three of dairy with a mix of nuts and grains. It is the fruit and vegetables that the average Australian lacks.

When the concept of a balanced diet was first promoted, there was a very simple message: to include meat and three veggies for each main meal. This was promoted widely and everyone understood this, but they didn’t promote the added benefit whereby the veggies should be of three colours. The message I prefer is to include a serve of meat (protein) and five vegetables of three colours and three plant parts (flower/fruit, leaves/stems and roots/tubers). At least one serve of vegetables should be a Brassica.

Brassicas (members of the large Brassicaceae family) are a common home vegetable that if bought in season are quite inexpensive. They include most leafy greens and the odd flowers – cauliflower, broccoli, broccolini and a few of the Asian greens. For some strange reason children are reluctant to eat most of them even though many have very little flavour (excluding my favourite – Brussels Sprouts) so it is hard to understand why.

One of the best for health, flavour, ease of cooking and ability to get the kids to eat is broccoli. Like most of the edible Brassicas, broccoli is a cultivar of Brassica oleracea and is a member of the subspecies/variety italica. There are so many cultivars that they are divided into groups, and Broccoli is a member of the Italica group. Other groups include the Capitata group, Botrytis group, Acephala group, and Gongylodes group, plus several more.

Unlike so many of the wonderful vegetables that help our health broccoli doesn’t come from ‘the New World’ but from the home of some of our best food styles: Italy and northern Mediterranean. Indeed, Brassica oleracea has been in cultivation for nearly 3000 years. Granted the forms eaten then are quite different from what we eat now. There are dozens, if not more, modern vegetables that are descended from the original broccoli. Cauliflower is a selection that has also become a popular western vegetable.

It is possible that along with wheat, broccoli is one of the earliest plants that were actively ‘bred’ with the aim of improving the yield and sustainability of the plants. There are many concepts as to what makes a civilised society but I believe the major (and often overlooked) one is the ability to propagate plants and make genetic selections to improve the yield. This is what people require to be able to live in towns and cities. 

The original broccoli evolved somewhere in southern Europe and spread across most of Europe via the Roman Empire. Somewhere around the 7th century it is thought that some active breeding was done in Sicily to create the modern broccoli. The early varieties became known as calabrese, and in many parts of Europe the name broccoli and calabrese are interchangeable. The vegetable moved into China along with many other European veggies, then quickly found its way to the USA.  With over 12 million tons produced per annuum it is a major worldwide crop. It is now a key vegetable in most cuisines around the globe.

Like most key vegetables, there are several commercial cultivars and a number of domestic selections. There are several coloured forms and a range known as ‘sprouting broccoli’. These plants produce a number of small side shoots that can be harvested whilst allowing the parent plant to keep growing and producing. The repeat harvest option makes it a great plant for the home garden. As it goes well with a range of child-friendly flavours, broccoli really is a ‘must grow’ in the home veggie patch.

In early 1980s Sakata seed company of Japan entered a breeding program to develop a milder form of broccoli that would grow well in a warmer range of climates. They manually crossed broccoli with Gailaan (Chinese broccoli). They eventually came up with a hybrid that performed well and had an enjoyable flavour. They named the plant in 1993 Aspabroc to reflect its similar appearance to both broccoli and asparagus which eventually became Asparation.

It was released in the mid-1990s and was not the success the breeders had hoped for. In 1996 Sakata joined forces with a major vegetable grower and packer from California called Mann Packing who had been in operation for almost 100 years. They came up with the name Broccolini which was trademarked and actively promoted across the USA. It became a hit vegetable and they have both maintained the Trademark and bred some new forms.

Broccolini is not a ‘baby broccoli’ or a ‘miniature broccoli’ but a man-made hybrid. The plant is widely grown and the large retailers sell it under the name Broccolini with the registered Trademark symbol attached. This should mean Mann still owns the Trademark on the name Broccolini, and can prevent anyone else from growing and selling the plant under that name. The wider community should be calling it Aspabroc – but nobody knows what that plant is. The media, hospitality and independent retailers do not use the Registered Trademark logo alongside the name. Hence the name has now entered the common vernacular which means the Trademark could be void.

If the Trademark is not void then any nursery selling ‘Broccolini’ plants is liable to be sued – regardless of whether the plants are genetically correct. However, if it can be proved that the name Broccolini is in mass use and refers to a widely available vegetable, then the Trademark can no longer be defended and we should see the plant turn up in the nurseries. An interesting legal question!

It is 2024, and as we always do, we hope for a prosperous and happy New Year that translates into a great 2024.

Leave a Reply