Brussels Sprouts (Brassica oleracea — Gemmifera group)
The Brussels sprout is a member of the same species as broccoli, but has an entirely different growth form. Like broccoli, the plant is grown for its immature flower buds—which most obviously resemble tiny cabbages. The Latin group name, Gemmifera, basically means “bud-bearing.” This plant grows as a biennial, and will eventually bloom in the second year. The slow growth in the first year may call for patience, but, happily, the plants are very cold hardy and the flavour improves after frost. This is because the plant converts its starches to sugars in preparation for flowering, and the sugars act as a kind of antifreeze.
Brussels sprouts can be picked right through fall and even into winter with no protection. Some growers in very cold areas will mulch up around the bases of plants with straw and then cover the whole plant (and mulch) with a sheet of plastic in order to extend the harvest. Others will pull the whole plant up and store it in a cold cellar, where the sprouts can be plucked off over the following three weeks or more. If very cold weather is in the forecast, pinch out the growing tip, and all the sprouts will mature at the same time. Otherwise, they mature from the bottom up.
The precursor to the modern Brussels sprout were likely grown in ancient Rome, and today’s vegetable was perfected and popularized as early as the 13th century, in Belgium, which explains their common name. By the mid-16th century, they were being cultivated in the Netherlands and other parts of Europe. French settlers brought seeds to Louisiana in the 1800s, and they are now grown on an industrial scale across the US and in Canada. Perhaps because of their cold hardiness, they freeze for storage rather well.
Brussels sprouts are more forgiving than many other Brassicas when it comes to soil. They want full sun and well-drained, neutrally acid soil with a pH of 6.5 — 7.0, and a fairly constant supply of moisture, so use soil with plenty of organic matter. Plants grow as tall as 120cm (4’) and can yield up to 3 lbs of sprouts each. The plants have shallow roots and can become relatively top-heavy, so offer them some protection from the wind, without creating shade, if possible.
Sprouts are exceptionally high in vitamin C, with good amounts of vitamin A, B1, folate, and beta-carotene. They’re also a good source of dietary fibre and minerals like iron, phosphorus, and potassium. If they are picked when they’re still small (like large marbles, rather than golf balls), the sprouts tend to be more tender and easier to cook evenly.
The last week of July sees the small town of Rogersville, New Brunswick transformed for its annual Brussels Sprout Festival. The vegetable played an important role in the history of the area, earning many farming families the bulk of their annual income. Although it has been replaced in recent times by more profitable crops, the Brussels sprout is still commemorated with live music, a parade, a bazaar, a “poker rally,” and a giant bingo game.