Although broccoli (Brassica oleacea) is native to the Mediterranean region, it was brought to England in the 1700s and to America in the early 1920s. Broccoli is a cruciferous vegetable and closely related to and often confused with cauliflower, cabbage, and Brussels sprouts.
As broccoli is a cool season crop that does not thrive in hot weather, new hybrids are tackling this sensitivity to warmer temperatures. The United States is the world’s top producer with California accounting for most commercial supply, and Arizona coming in a distant second in production. East Coast growers now also cultivate broccoli, to save on long-distance shipping costs.
Types & Varieties
While there are many types of broccoli, they do not have significantly different flavor profiles and are generally tied to growing region and climate.
Common California varieties include Avenger, Belstar, Destiny, Green Magic, Imperial, Legacy, Marathon, Patron, and Tahoe; Northeastern varieties include hybrids (Captain, Everest, Gypsy, Pinnacle, Diplomat, and Windsor) and nonhybrids (Imperial, Emerald Pride, Packman, and Premium Crop).
A number of hybrids are expanding the market and shining a spotlight on broccoli. Broccolini, a hybrid of broccoli and gai lan, a type of Chinese kale, is increasingly popular.
Broccoli slaw, made from stems and stalks after florets have been removed, is a stalwart of the salad and slaws category. Precut and bagged florets are also expanding market share.
Broccolini is typically sweeter than regular broccoli; many often draw comparisons between it and asparagus. Another hybrid is ‘broccoflower,’ the result of cross-pollination between broccoli and cauliflower.
‘Romanesco broccoli’ is not broccoli but belongs to the same family, Brassica oleracea.
Broccoli can be directly seeded or transplanted. Ideal soil is well-drained with a variety of textures and low salination, as higher salinity levels will affect yield.
Many hybrids and new varieties have been bred to resist various pests and diseases or thrive at differing climates and moisture levels. Hybrids like broccoflower can do well in warmer temperatures, but should still be properly gauged to keep plants from blanching.
Irrigation is particularly important during flower head formation. Overwatering causes loose heads or hollow stems, putting plants at risk for root diseases.
Sprinkler irrigation is commonly used through seed emergence or after transplanting; thereafter, furrow or drip irrigation is effective for the life of the crop.
Broccoli and broccoflower hybrids are ready for harvest from 60 to 100 days after initial planting; a variety of purple cauliflower known as Violet Queen is ready in 70 days.
Pests & Diseases
Broccoli-favoring pests that attack plants include cabbage and seedcorn maggots, while flea beetles, wireworms, cutworms, and aphids affect seedlings.
Mature broccoli plants can fall victim to loopers, beet armyworms, diamondback moths, silverleaf whiteflies, and cabbage worms. Nematodes can interfere with growth if soil is overrun with the parasitic worms.
Infestations can lead to insects feeding on the heads and leaves, causing leaves to wilt, head size to diminish, or the entire plant to die. The spreading of decay and pathogens is also caused by pests.
Common diseases include hollow stem, floret yellowing, and brown floret. Rough handling can increase the likelihood of bacterial decay. Fungal and bacterial pathogens are more common in rainy, cooler growing environments and include black rot, blackleg, bacterial head rot, downy mildew, and alternaria.
Pathogens can lead to damping-off, stunted growth, leaf decay, spots, blisters, and eventually the death of the plant. Poor irrigation, mishandling, and equipment can allow pathogens to spread to other plants and/or fields.
This can often be prevented with crop rotation and disease-resistant varieties. Treating both plants and seedlings with fungicides is often a helpful remedy.