Perhaps no other family of edible plants has yielded so many variants and hybrids over the centuries as has the Brassica family, sometimes collectively called "cole crops" or referred to as "crucifers" because each bloom has a crucifixlike, four-petaled structure.
This wildly diverse group can transfix a gardener for a lifetime and keep a creative cook busy for just as long. And no other group of vegetables is so easy and reliable, perfect confidence builders for the beginning food gardener eager to declare independence from pesticide-based corporate farms.
Arugula (Eruca vesicaria) has a love-it-or-hate-it flavor: aromatic, pleasantly bitter, pungent. Expensive in markets, it grows like a weed each winter in central Florida and loves chilly weather.
The small seeds sprout quickly, mature rapidly in fertile soil and bear until summer heat returns. Try arugula raw in salads or flash-sauteed with onions in bacon fat as the French do.
Broccoli was bred from Brassica oleracea, as were cabbage, brussels sprouts, kale, cauliflower and collards, and they all grow splendidly if they are given the same soil and conditions.
Just tuck half a dozen seedlings of any of these classics into rich soil in your sunniest landscape garden where you never spray, and let their beautiful blue-green leaves complement the colors of winter annuals like snaps, petunias, dianthus and California poppies. A deep weekly watering will sustain both vegetables and fruits with no need for a separate vegetable garden.
But if you do have a veggie garden, all varieties are easy to grow from seed, so give kids a chance to love broccoli by growing it. Waltham 29 came out in 1954, when I was a 1-year-old in Key West, and has been my favorite variety to grow since 1982. It makes a huge central head, then produces plenty of side shoots after that first harvest.
The leaves of cauliflower, broccoli and brussels sprouts are tasty and nutritious, too, either cooked like collards, added to stir-frys and soups, or minced raw into salads.
For those of you who love wasabi (a brassica called Wasabia japonica) with your sushi, try "Osaka Purple" or "Giant Red" mustard (B. juncea). My friends and I simply call it "Face Blaster" because a leaf, chewed raw, gives that same sinus-searing rush wasabi does.
The species Raphanus sativus was the basis for that staple of Chinese cooking, the giant elongated white radish called daikon. Hard to believe that our familiar little red radishes were developed from the same species, since we use them as a raw garnish and discard the leaves. If I had to choose just one favorite Asian brassica, daikon ''Minovase'' might be it. The flavor, texture and ease of growth are outstanding. Just be sure your soil is turned and loosened deeply. These roots often grow to the length of my forearm and, like carrots, form best in soil that is not packed.
A little history
"Mustard" actually refers to several crops bred from a few species. The various broadleaf mustards cooked as "greens," plus the wasabilike "Green Wave" mustard, were developed from B. juncea. The culinary mustards used on hot dogs and egg rolls are usually the crushed processed seeds of brown mustard (B. rupestris). Indian cuisine relies on black mustard (B. nigra) as an ingredient of curries or to flavor cooking oil. Its leaves are edible too. One of the first brassicas I ever grew was "Tendergreen Mustard-Spinach" back in the 1970s in Tampa. Bred from B. perviridis, it boasts tender succulent leaves that are so mild they can be used as a spinach substitute, raw or cooked.
Both the rarely grown "garden cress" (Lepidium sativum) and watercress (Nasturtium officinale, not the "nasturtium" of our flower gardens) are small-leaved brassicas grown for peppery petite foliage that can be added to sandwiches and salads.
John A. Starnes Jr. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.