Ever resourceful and ingenious mankind always seems able to find alternate uses for every plant species taken into cultivation. In many crops different varieties have been selected specially suited to their particular applications. A simple example of this phenomenon is the apple with its cooking, dessert and cider varieties, more extreme cases include: fibre and high resin forms of hemp and linseed grown for oil or flax for fibre. The undisputed master of art is the humble cabbage. This single species occurs as spring, summer and autumn varieties, in shades of red, green and white, with Savoy or smooth round heads. But this is just the beginning because kale, collards, kohlrabi, calabrese, broccoli, Brussels sprouts and cauliflower are still all the same species, not to mention the more obscure, ornamental kales, the palm tree cabbage and walking-stick cabbage. What is even more amazing about this long list of apparently different vegetables is that many of them appear to have been invented not just once but twice.
No one is entirely certain if the wild cabbage is truly native to Britain or not. Non-cultivated plants can be found growing around much of our coastline, but many of these populations are probably the descendants of plants that made it over the garden fence, rather than being relic ancient Brits. These coastal cabbages are highly variable with some plants looking more like broccoli, while in others the family resemblance is closer to kale. Whatever their origins, the cabbages that live in the wild in Britain are impressive plants. Some botanist claim to be able to age plants by counting annual whorls of leaf scars. Individuals cabbages as old as thirty years been reported. In contrast around the Mediterranean plants of what is arguably the same species are unable to survive through the dry hot summers. They have adapted to the conditions by growing rapidly during the mild wetter months of winter, flowering just the once before dying. The same switch in life-style from long-lived northern types to ephemeral Mediterranean winter annual occurs in many familiar species, including the common daisy.
The earliest records of cultivated cabbages are to be found in the writings of ancient Greece and Rome and date from around 600BC, although they were probably grown much earlier than this. These classical cabbages must have been derived from the short-lived annual Brassicas native to the region. By the first century AD there were already accounts of varieties, which resembled leafy kales, heading cabbages, kohlrabi and something like a cauliflower or broccoli. Following the decline of the Roman Empire these early vegetables slipped into obscurity as Europe entered the dark ages.
The modern cabbage emerged in medieval Germany. Botanical genealogists have traced its ancestry to the long-lived northern forms. Unable to claim decent from the noble cabbages of ancient Rome they have remained sour kraut ever since. As the name suggests, kohlrabi in its current incarnation is another German invention and dates from the fifteenth century. The cauliflower and its progenitor the broccolis are thought to have been reinvented around the Mediterranean with the island of Cyprus usually being identified as their particular Garden of Eden. This theory is supported by the fact that they are frequently fast growing annuals. However perennial broccolis are also known, suggesting that northern Europeans have long enjoyed holiday romances in the sun.
Compared with other manifestations of the cabbage the sprout is a new fangled invention. It was first recorded in Belgium in 1750, near Brussels, where else? From there it took about 50 years for the crop to spread to France and Britain. This particular form of the species appears to have been completely unknown to the Emperors of Rome, the Belgiums can therefore take full credit for the invention of Brassica oleracea var. gemmifera. The British have a strange love-hate relationship with the Brussel sprout, purchasing 150 million of them during the week before Christmas, only to boil them to a pulp on the 25th. But 150 million is way more sprouts than we buy Christmas trees, which must mean that the humble sprout rather than the holly, the ivy, mistletoe , Norway spruce or even frankincense or myre can claim to be the true plant of Christmas.