History and Description of Cabbage

History and Description of Cabbage

Cabbage has a round shape and is composed of superimposed leaf layers. It is a member of the food family traditionally known as cruciferous vegetables and is very closely related to kale, broccoli, collards and Brussels sprouts.

Cabbage is a leafy vegetable from the wide family of “brassicas”. It is grown annually, and we eat its dense green or purple leaves in many different dishes. Head of cabbage, which can grow from 0.5 to 4 kilograms, is rich in vitamins and minerals, has almost no fat and is very rich in fiber which makes it very healthy to eat.

We don’t know for certain where cabbage appeared for the first time because many plants belong to the family of “brassicas”, they grow around the world and today’s cabbage descends from them.

The most common theory is that The West cabbage is domesticated in Europe some 3,000 years ago from its wild predecessors that had thick leaves that retained water which allowed them to survive in colder places with less water.

In the East, cabbage is used since the 4,000 BC and was cultivated in North China. These variants were nonheading cabbages and were domesticated by Celts of central and western Europe. Mesopotamia also knew about cabbages while the ancient Egyptians didn’t cultivate cabbages until the times of the Ptolemaic dynasty.

By the time of the early Rome, cabbage became common food in the Egypt along with other vegetables. Theophrastus (371 – 287BC), which is considered “father of botany”, mentions cabbage in his texts, so we know that Greeks knew about them at least as early as 4th century BC.

The headed cabbage Greeks called “krambe” while the Romans called it “brassica” or “olus”. Tales say that Diogenes ate nothing but cabbage and drank nothing but water. In Rome, cabbage was considered a luxury and many regarded it as better than all other vegetables.

They also used it for medicinal purpose as relief from gout, headaches and the symptoms of poisonous mushroom ingestion. Some even advised the use of cabbage-eater’s urine, in which infants might be rinsed.

Pliny the Elder wrote about seven known variants of cabbage at that time which include Pompeii, Cumae, and Sabellian cabbage. Except for nourishment, Ancient Egyptians and Romans ate larger amounts of cabbage before the night of drinking which allowed them to drink more.

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During the time of Charlemagne (Charles the Great, 8th century), cabbages were directed to be cultivated in the “Capitulare de villis”, a text that gave rules and regulations on how to manage the lands and laws in the country.

The first round-headed cabbages appeared in 14th-century England, and they became more and more popular as cuisine throughout Europe. Proof for this we find in manuscripts of that time where they appeared in illuminations and in other texts where they were mentioned as the food of both wealthy and poor.

From Europe, cultivated variants of cabbage spread to Asia and Americas. It was brought to India by colonizing traders from Portugal somewhere between a 14th and 17th century, and it was unknown in Japan until the 18th century.

The first cabbage in America was brought by a French explorer Jacques Cartier on his third voyage 1541 – 1542. Cabbage became necessary on long ocean journeys because it has high amounts of vitamin C which prevent scurvy.

Ship doctors (like for instance doctor on captain Cook’s ship that sailed in 1769) used sauerkraut (cabbage preserved in brine) to treat wounds of sailors and prevent gangrene.

Today, China is the largest producer of cabbage, followed by India and Russia, which is the biggest consumer of cabbage.

Around the world, cabbage is prepared in different ways. While it can be eaten raw, as a salad, cabbage can be steamed, pickled, stewed, sautéed or braised. Sauerkraut and kimchi are the most popular pickled variants while the coleslaw is one of the most popular salads.

Origin of the Cabbage

Cabbage is from a group of plants known as the cole crops. The word “cole” derives from the Middle English word “col”. The Romans called these crops “caulis”, and the Greeks called them “kaulion”. All these words mean “stem”. This group of plants includes cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, kale, collards, kohlrabi, and Brussels sprouts.

Wild cole crops are found growing along the Mediterranean and Atlantic coasts of Europe. Cabbages and kale presumably originated in Western Europe; cauliflower and broccoli in the Mediterranean region. Cabbages and kale were the first of the cole crops to be domesticated, probably about 2,000 years ago.

Before these crops were domesticated they were collected from the wild and used primarily as medicinal herbs. The other forms of the cole crops were domesticated at later dates, and Brussels sprouts are the most recent crop, having come into existence less than 500 years ago.

Taxonomy

Cole crops are from the family Cruciferae, a large family which contains many vegetables. It is also called the mustard family.

The family name comes from the Latin word for “cross” and was given to members of this family because the flowers are cross-shaped . Cole crops are herbaceous, biennial, dicotyledonous plants specifically from the genus and species, Brassica oleracea . There are many different groups within this species:

  • acephala – kale, collards

  • botrytis – cauliflower

  • capitata – cabbage

  • gemmifera – Brussels sprouts

  • gongylodes – kohlrabi

  • italica – sprouting broccoli

  • Cauliflower, cabbage, broccoli, and Brussels sprouts all have similar cultural requirements, although the climatic range differs. The different groups have different environmental requirements for growth.

    These crops are grown as summer crops in the North and winter crops in the extreme south. In the intermediate zone often two crops are grown each year.

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    Nutritive Value

    Cabbage is fairly low in calories, but is also relatively low in protein content. It is a good source of many minerals, particularly potassium, and is also relatively high in vitamins A and C. Green cultivars tend to have more vitamin A than red cabbage cultivars, and savoy types tend to have more vitamin A than smooth types.

    All cruciferous vegetables provide integrated nourishment across a wide variety of nutritional categories and provide broad support across a wide variety of body systems as well. For more on cruciferous vegetables see:

    The word “brassica” translates in Latin as “cabbage.” However, this connection between cabbage and “brassica” vegetables can sometimes be confusing.

    Cabbage and all of its fellow cruciferous vegetables all belong to the family of plants called the Brassicaceae. Despite the literal translation of “brasssica” as “cabbage,” however, this family of plants is seldom referred to as the “cabbage family.”

    Far more often, it is referred to as the “mustard plant family.” (Mustard, including mustard greens, belongs to this plant family as well.) When people talk about the “brassica” family of plants, they are talking about the plant family that includes both cabbage and mustard.

    Historically, this family of plants was most commonly referred to as the Crucifereae. For all practical purposes, Crucifereae and Brassicaceae are interchangeable names for this plant family.

    The name Crucifereae, of course, is where the term “cruciferous vegetables” originates. All cruciferous vegetables are members of the Brassicaceae/Crucifereae family.

    Even more confusing is the very close relationship between several members of this plant family. The genus/species combination of Brassica oleraceae is identical for all of the following cruciferous vegetables: broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, kale, and kohlrabi. These six vegetables are simply different subspecies and varieties of Brassica oleraceae.

    Because cabbage’s inner leaves are protected from the sunlight by the surrounding leaves, they are oftentimes lighter in color. However, the outer color of cabbage leaves is still the most common way of dividing cabbage into types. For cabbage, the two basic color types are green and red.

    History and Description of Cabbage

    Green cabbages can range from very dark to very light in color. (In fact, some of the lighter-colored green cabbage varieties are actually referred to as “white” cabbages.) The subgroup “alba” (meaning “white” in Latin) is often used to refer to the green cabbage subgroup as a whole.

    Red cabbage can also range widely in color, with some appearing deep purple in color. The subgroup “rubra” is often used to refer to the red cabbage subgroup as a whole. You’ll also sometimes hear the darkest shades of purple cabbage being referred to as “black” cabbage.

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    Savoy cabbage refers to cabbage that has more crinkled or “ruffly” leaves. The leaves may also be less densely packed together. Savoy cabbage also typically has a more delicate texture than ordinary green or red varieties. However, there are light green, dark green, red, and purple varieties of savoy cabbage, just like there are similar colors of non-savoy varieties.

    Most of the savoy cabbage varieties commonly available in U.S. grocery stores, however, have leaves that are lighter green or green-yellow in color. The subgroup name “sabauda” is often used to refer to the savoy subgroup as a whole.

    Once you move past these basic cabbage types, however, some of the terms that you will hear to describe cabbage can become confusing. For example, you will sometimes hear the term “Chinese cabbage” being used to refer to cabbage types.

    However, cabbage types referred to as “Chinese” seldom belong to the Brassica oleracea genus/species of plant, but rather, to the Brassica rapa genus/species. Brassica rapa is the genus/species to which boy choy and turnips also belong.

    Due to these close plant relationships, you may find the terms “choy” and “cabbage” overlapping fairly extensively in common vegetable names. For example, you may find bok choy being referred to as “white cabbage” or “Chinese cabbage” even though bok choy does not belong to the Brassica oleracea genus species that serves as the home for broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, kale, and kohlrabi.

    As mentioned earlier in this Description section, the Brassicaceae family of plants has some very closely related groups and this closeness is witnessed by the common naming of cabbage and choy plants.

    Most “Chinese cabbage” sold in U.S. groceries belongs to the group Brassica rapa subspecies pekinensis. The term “napa cabbage” is sometimes used in a way that is synonymous with “Chinese cabbage,” and this usage makes sense to us because the most common plant group for “napa cabbage” is also group Brassica rapa subspecies pekinensis.

    When the terms “Chinese cabbage” and “napa cabbage” are used in this synonymous way, you can treat these varieties of cabbage as being readily identifiable by their fairly large, barrel-shaped heads and their somewhat crinkly leaves.

    In the case of “napa cabbage,” it is also worth noting that the designation “napa” comes from the Japanese word “nappa” rather than the region of California known as the “Napa Valley.”

    Yet another Brassicaceae family vegetable that you may hear being referred to as cabbage is “Tuscan cabbage.” At this point in time, the term “Tuscan cabbage” does not have a very reliable food counterpart in the grocery store. “Cavolo nero” which literally means “black cabbage” in Italian is most often a variety of Brassica oleracea most closely resembling kale.

    In fact, “Tuscan kale” is a more common name for the seeds of this plant than either “Tuscan cabbage” or “black cabbage.” But once again, you can see the amazing closeness in the food naming and food relationships in this Brassicacea family of plants.

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    History of Cabbage

    History and Description of CabbageAs you might imagine from the complicated set of descriptions above, it has been equally complicated for plant researchers to trace the exact history of cabbage and its development.

    Because of the linguistic overlap between “choy” and “cabbage” and because of the cultivation of Brassicacea plants in Europe, Asia, and Africa, there are some conflicting analyses of cabbage and its exact origins.

    Most histories, however, point to the presence of wild cabbage in Europe as the most direct, distant ancestor of the cabbages we currently purchase in the grocery store.

    However, if we lived in Europe during the first years of wild cabbage growth over 2,000 years ago, we would be unlikely to recognize any of those wild cabbage plants as cabbages.

    That’s because the original European forms of this plant were non-head-forming and much more closely resembled cruciferous vegetables like kale or collards.

    In 2014, U.S. adult intake of cabbage averaged about seven pounds per year. This volume of intake placed cabbage in 10th place in 2014 as the most commonly consumed vegetable.

    In terms of food production and the U.S. food supply chain, nearly half (45%) of all cabbage produced for the retail marketplace is ultimately processed into coleslaw.

    Production of sauerkraut accounts for another 12% of all cabbage production, and most of the remaining cabbage is sold as produce in the form of head cabbage.

    The states of California, Florida, Georgia, New York, and Texas jointly produce about 75% of the cabbage grown in the U.S., even though cabbage is widely grown across most of the country.

    About 2.2 billion pounds of cabbage are grown in the U.S. each year, with about 100 million pounds being exported and at least that amount or greater being imported from other countries each year. Mexico followed by Canada account for the majority of cabbage imports into the U.S.

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