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A Floridata Plant Profile #606 Brassica oleracea var. capitata
Common Names: cabbage, heading cabbage, Savoy cabbage
Family: Brassicaceae/Cruciferae (cabbage Family)
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Annual   Edible Plant

A row of 'Bonnie' hybrid cabbages.
Steve grows these 'Bonnie' hybrid cabbages in his winter vegetable garden.
When you see cabbage, you usually see the tightly clustered leaves in a compact "head", and maybe a few loose outer leaves around the base. This is the way cabbage grows until longer days and warmer weather signal it to bolt to flower. Then, the head splits open and gives birth to a stalk that uncurls itself as it forces the split head farther open. The stalk grows 2-4' (0.6-1.2 m) tall, then branches and develops numerous small, 4-petaled, cross-shaped yellow flowers that eventually develop into elongate seed pods. There are hundreds of cultivars of cabbage (Cornucopia - a Source Book of Edible Plants lists 73 available in the US). They can be grouped into three main kinds: smooth green, red and Savoy. The smooth green cabbages may have round, flattened or conical heads, and can be green, blue-green or yellow-green. Head size can range from one pound in some dwarf varieties to more than 60 lbs (27 kg)for some of the kraut cabbages. The red cabbages are reddish-purple and have very tight heads. The Savoy cabbages have crinkled, puckery bluish-green leaves and looser heads. (Chinese cabbage belongs to a different species: Brassica rapa).

Wild cabbage (Brassica oleracea ssp. oleracea) grows along the coasts in Europe and north Africa. The earliest records of cabbage being cultivated for food come from the Greeks around 600 BC. Today cabbage is grown for food everywhere that plants can be grown.

Cabbage is easy to grow in cool weather. They take anywhere from 60 to 120 days from seed to maturity, depending on air temperature and the particular cultivar. Some cultivars will sprout new side heads after the main head is cut off.
Light: Cabbage does best in full sun.
Moisture: Regular watering is recommended for best growth.
Hardiness: USDA Zones 3 - 9. Cabbage is very cold hardy, and can withstand temperatures at least as low as 20º F (-6.6º C) The seedlings are less cold tolerant than older plants. In the south, cabbage is planted in fall for harvest in late winter and spring.
Propagation: Cabbages are propagated by seed. This, despite the Greek myth that cabbage originally sprung from Zeus's perspiration. Most gardeners buy cabbage sets or start their own from seeds 4-6 weeks before planting.

Heads of red, smooth green, and Savoy cabbage pose in front of 'Bonnie' hybrid cabbage growing in the background.
Cabbage leaves are eaten raw in salads and cole slaw. They are steamed, boiled, stir-fried and pickled. Cabbage is fermented to make German sauerkraut and Korean kimshi. The larger, outer leaves are stuffed and used to wrap other foods before baking or braising.

Cabbage contains high levels of antioxidants and vitamins A, B1, B2 and C. It should not be overcooked, as this destroys much of the flavor and most of the nutrients. One can hardly do better with fresh cabbage than to steam it briefly in the water that clings to it after rinsing, and serve it with butter, poppy seeds, salt and pepper. To keep red cabbage from losing its color during cooking, add a small amount of lemon juice or vinegar to the water. To prevent the odor of cooking cabbage from permeating the house, place several slices of stale bread on top of the cabbage while it is cooking. The bread will absorb the odors and can be discarded after the cabbage is finished. To maximize its many health benefits, eat cabbage raw in cole slaw or salad.

cabbage field
Workers harvest a mid-summer crop of purple cabbage along US 441 in the cool North Georgia mountains.
Gardeners have created an amazing diversity of vegetables from the original wild cabbage, Brassica oleracea. This was done merely by saving and planting seeds from the individual plants that had the characteristics that the gardener wanted to perpetuate. Every single plant that grows from a packet of seeds you buy at the garden center (even if all those seeds came from the same parent plant) is at least a little bit different. No two are alike. Merely by selecting which of those plants will be the source of the seeds you will plant next season, you can direct evolution any way you want. The process is called selection; not natural selection as happens in nature, but "horticultural selection." (I have never understood why they made such a big fuss over Darwin's discovery that selection happens in nature; gardeners had been practicing selection for more than 3000 years!)

Horticultural selection within the species Brassica oleracea (wild cabbage) has led to the development of hundreds of cultivars that are now organized into eight major groups of vegetables:

  • The acephala group includes kale, collards, flowering (ornamental) kale and cabbage, cole and borecale.
  • The alboglabra group includes Chinese kale and Chinese broccoli, vegetables cooked as pot herbs in Asia and rarely seen in the US.
  • The botrytis group includes broccoli and cauliflower.
  • The capitata group includes green, red and Savoy cabbage.
  • The gemmifera group includes Brussels sprouts.
  • The gongylodes group includes kohlrabi.
  • The italica group includes Italian broccoli, asparagus broccoli, sprouting broccoli, cape broccoli and purple cauliflower. These are similar to broccoli and cauliflower except that the flower buds are not condensed into compact, solid heads. They are rarely found in the US.
  • The tronchuda group includes tronchuda kale and cabbage, Portuguese kale and cabbage, and braganza. These are small, cabbage-like plants with broad fleshy petioles and midribs, but lacking compact heads. They are especially popular in Portugal.

Cabbage (and other members of the genus Brassica) contain very high levels of antioxidant and anticancer compounds. Dithioltiones and glucosinolates enhance antioxidant and detoxification effects in the body. Isothiocyanates inhibit tumor growth. Coumarins block cancer causing compounds. Various phenols in cabbage prevent the formation of carcinogens and enhance detoxification enzymes. (The Romans ate cabbage to cure hangovers.) The anti-cancer properties of cabbage are so well-established that the American Cancer Society recommends that Americans increase their intake of cabbage and other crucifer crops. Other research has suggested that the compounds in cabbage and other crucifers can protect the eyes against macular degeneration. Eat your greens!

Steve Christman 1/9/00; updated 12/5/02, 9/5/03

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