Although broccoli (Brassica oleacea) is native to the Mediterranean, it was brought to England in the early 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. Although broccoli is a cool season crop that does not thrive in hot weather, new hybrids are tackling this sensitivity to warmer temperatures.
Broccoli began gaining popularity after World War II and has steadily increased its market share in the decades since, especially with new products like broccoli slaw and hybrid varieties. The United States is the largest producer of broccoli in the world; almost every state can grow broccoli, but California accounts for most commercial supply (predominantly for the fresh market, with about 20% shipped to international receivers). Arizona comes in a distant second in production; East Coast growers now also cultivate broccoli, saving on shipping costs.
References: Agricultural Marketing Resource Center, PennState Extension, University of Kentucky College of Agriculture, Food, and Environment.
TYPES, VARIETIES & CUTS
While there are many types of broccoli, they do not have significantly different flavor profiles and use is generally tied to growing region and planting schedule. Common California varieties include Avenger, Belstar, Concord, Destiny, Green Magic, Imperial, Legacy, Marathon, Patriot, 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 and exclusive to the United States. Broccoli slaw, made from stems and stalks after florets have been removed for other purposes, has become 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 with a similar taste is ‘broccoflower,’ the result of cross-pollination between broccoli and cauliflower. Like other broccoli varieties, it thrives in colder weather, as does purple cauliflower. Still considered a type of broccoli, purple cauliflower will taste like broccoli or cauliflower depending on if it is harvested before or after a winter frost.
Many hybrids were created for growth during the summer months, as opposed to the commercial brands of broccoli that do better during the fall and winter. While certain traditional hybrids of broccoli—including Packman and Marathon—are well adapted to colder climates, there are ongoing experiments for more summer varieties with similar head and leaf sizes. Successful varieties include BC1764, Lieutenant, Green Magic, Gypsy, and Belstar.
Though typically referred to as ‘Romanesco broccoli,’ the plant Romanesco is in fact not broccoli, it merely belongs to the same family, Brassica oleracea.
References: Agricultural Marketing Resource Center, Cornell University, Oregon State University Department of Horticulture, PennState Extension, UC Davis Postharvest Technology Center, University of Arizona Department of Agriculture and Life Sciences, University of Wisconsin Extension.
PESTS & DISEASE
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 of broccoli, 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.
For certain insects, such as aphids, applications of soapy water may be enough to stem an infestation if detected early enough. For others, such as various types of worms, applying insecticides is an effective deterrent; maintaining beds, removing dead plant material, or introducing natural predators can also assist in removing pests.
Common diseases affecting broccoli are hollow stem, floret yellowing, and brown floret. Rough handling or the forceful application of cooling substances during harvest 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 the damping-off of seedlings, stunted growth, leaf decay, spots, blisters, and the death of the plant. Poor irrigation, mishandling, and equipment can allow pathogens to spread to other plants or fields. This can often be prevented with crop rotation and disease-resistant varieties. Treating both plants and seedlings with fungicides is helpful.
References: Clemson Cooperative Extension, IFAS Extension, PennState Extension, UC Davis Postharvest Technology Center, University of Illinois Extension, University of Minnesota Extension.