Fascinating facts: broccoli

Calabrese 'Green Magic'
  • Botanical name: Brassica oleracea var. italica
  • First cultivated: Broccoli was a highly-regarded food during the time of the Roman Empire, although it didn’t reach British shores until the mid-eighteenth century.
  • Types: The two most common two types of broccoli are calabrese, such as 'Ironman' and sprouting broccoli, such as 'Cardinal'.
  • Skill level: Intermediate
  • Preferred location and conditions: Broccoli requires fertile, well-drained, moisture-retentive soil, preferably alkaline.
  • Good for containers: Yes
  • Planting and growing: Sow seeds in modules in March, or outdoors from April to June. Feed with liquid fertiliser each week.
  • Harvest time: Calabrese varieties can be harvested within four months of sowing (July to October) and sprouting varieties will be ready the following winter/spring.
  • Possible problems: Hot weather can quickly cause plants to run to seed so keep an eye on them throughout the summer. Club root can cause the plants to die, but this can be avoided by adding lime to the soil. Net the plants to ward of birds and caterpillars or use mesh to safeguard against cabbage root fly.

Broccoli 'Red Fire'
Did you know?

A member of the Cruciferae family, along with cauliflower, cabbage and kale, broccoli is a tasty and nutritious vegetable that’s loaded with health benefits.

Broccoli was first cultivated by Italian farmers more than two thousand years ago; its name comes from the Italian word broccolo which means ‘the flowering crest of a cabbage’. It was held in such high regard among the ancient Romans, that Drusus Caesar, son of the Emperor Tiberius, reportedly ate nothing but the vegetable for an entire month. (Not that the nutritional benefits ensured him a long and healthy life, however, for he was allegedly murdered by his wife at the age of 35.)

Broccoli didn’t reach British soil until the middle of the eighteenth century, when it was introduced by the Flemish sculptor, Peter Scheemakers, who is perhaps best-known for creating the famous monument to William Shakespeare which stands in Westminster Abbey.

A love-hate relationship

It also reached America around this time, for records show that the Founding Father, Thomas Jefferson, who was also a keen gardener, experimented with broccoli seeds brought over from Italy in the late 1700s, and the vegetable has had a surprising association with the American presidency ever since. At a news conference in 1990, President George Bush famously announced: ''I do not like broccoli… and I haven't liked it since I was a little kid and my mother made me eat it. And I'm President of the United States, and I'm not going to eat any more broccoli!'' More encouragingly however, President Barack Obama declared broccoli as his favourite food at the Kids’ State Dinner held at the White House in 2013.

And he’s not the only one with a penchant for these luscious green stalks. In a recent survey commissioned by Diabetes UK, broccoli was named the nation’s favourite vegetable, and rightly so, for not only is it delicious to eat, it’s incredibly good for you. As well as being high in protein and fibre, it contains iron, potassium, calcium, selenium and magnesium. It’s also rich in vitamins A, C, E, K, and B vitamins including folate. Studies have shown it can lower the risk of obesity, diabetes and heart disease, and it strengthens the immune system thanks to its high level of anti-oxidants and phytochemicals. It is thought to improve bone health and even fight skin damage caused by the sun and pollution. Research also suggests that broccoli contains cancer-fighting compounds.

As one of the most nutrient-rich vegetables, it makes sense to devote a section of your veg patch to broccoli, and it can even be grown in pots on your patio if you have limited outside space. Calabrese varieties can be harvested within four months, so get sowing at the end of this month to enjoy your own delicious crop from July.

Text provided by Mr Fothergill's.

RHS Grow Your Own

RHS advice: How to grow calabrese & sprouting broccoli

Mr Fothergill's


See also

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Advice from the RHS

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