Last week Greg over at Pie-ence was talking about the amazing variety of vegetable crops breed out of a handful of species within the genus Brassica, specifically Brassica rapa and Brassica oleracea.* I’m referring to these as cruciferous vegetables, which is actually a wider category including all the vegetables within the mustard family of plants (scientifically this is called the Brassicaceae). But one of the cool things about having so many kinds of vegetables within the same couple of species is that, because they’re the same species, they can still be interbreed with each other to create “new”** vegetables.
I still remember the first time I saw such a new vegetables, the broccoflower***. I didn’t even LIKE vegetables back then but I was still fascinated by this strange new plant in the produce aisle. Needless to say, others didn’t share my excitement as the broccoflower did not, in fact end up taking the world by storm (I’m not bitter!), although I do still spot them from time to time at the grocery store. I was able to dig up this very enthusiastic article on the broccoflower from twenty years ago. The internet is a wonderful thing.
The internet is also responsible for telling me about the latest development in cruciferous vegetables. The “flower sprout”, the result of breeding work using brussels sprouts and kale, both breeds of the species Brassica oleracea. Right now they’re only available in England, otherwise I’d have tried it already. How could I resist a vegetable described as:
“a purple and green triffid-like crop”
Both the links in the above paragraph are to stories that also contain pictures of the flower sprout.
I guess my point here is that plant breeders can produce all kinds of cool new vegetables given the chance. The limiting factor really is what people will buy, not the variability of plants.
*Brassica oleracea is responsible for Broccoli, Brussels sprouts, Cabbage, Cauliflower, Collard Greens, Kale, and Kohlrabi. Brassica rapa is responsible for Bok choy, Komatsuna, Mizuna, Rapini, Chinese cabbage, and Turnips. And Brassica napus, a species that resulted from the hybridization of Brassica rapa and Bassica oleracea adds Rutabaga and Canola (not a vegetable, but a key crop none the less) to the count.
**I’m putting new in quotes throughout this article because I don’t know what the actual definition of what makes vegetable different enough to qualify as a new type is.
***From everything I was able to read the broccoflower really is the result of a cross between broccoli and cauliflower (followed by many more generations of selective breeding of course). It is generally lumped in with the cauliflowers because its head is made of up inflorescence stem tissue, while broccoli heads are made up of immature flower buds. Cauliflower plants (and broccoflower plants) have broken copies of the CAL gene, which (when it isn’t broken) is helps the plant decide to switch from producing stems that were bear flowers to the flowers themselves. Without a functional version of CAL, cauliflowers just keep making denser and denser stems, producing the distinctive heads of cauliflower. If you have journal access, you can read more about the CAL gene at this science paper: http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/science.7824951
Since the effect of breaking this gene suggests to me that it is probably a recessive mutation (it won’t have an effect on the plant unless the plant inherits a broken copy from both parents) I imagine developing the broccoflower involved mating the offspring of a broccoli / cauliflower mating and mating them with normal cauliflowers again, since plants with one cauliflower and one broccoli parent should inherit a working copy of the CAL gene from their dad (or mom) the broccoli. But this last paragraph is purely my own speculation.