Origins and Diversity of Brassica and its Relatives

Understanding the brassica1 vegetables involves a fascinating, biological journey through evolutionary time, witnessing wild plant populations interbreeding and forming stable hybrids. Mankind took both the wild parents and their hybrid progeny, refined them by selection and further combination, and produced over biblical time crops that are, together with the cereals, the mainstay of world food supplies. Genetic diversity and flexibility are characteristic features of all members of the family Brassicaceae (previously the Cruciferae). Possibly, these traits encouraged their domestication by Neolithic man. Records show that the Ancient Greeks, Romans, Indians and Chinese all valued and used them greatly. The etymology of Brassica has been contested since Herman Boerhaave suggested in 1727 that it might come from the Greek anowv/SpageL-v, Latin vorare ('to devour') (Henslow, 1908). An alternative derivation from Bresic or Bresych, the Celtic name for cabbage, was suggested by Hegi (1919). This is a contraction of praesecare ('to cut off early'), since the leaves were harvested for autumn and early winter food and fodder. Another suggested origin is from the Greek fi-paoaeLv, crackle, coming from the sound made when the leaves are detached from the stem (Gates, 1953). A further suggestion is a Latin derivation from 'to cut off the head' and was first recorded in a comedy of Plautus in the 3rd century bc. Aristotle (384-322 bc), Theophrastus (3 71-286 bc), Cato (234-149 bc), Columella (1st century ad) and Pliny (23-79 ad) all mention the importance of brassicas.

Further eastwards, the ancient Sanskrit literature Upanishads and Brahamanas, originating around 1500 bc, mention brassicas, and the Chinese Shih Ching, possibly edited by Confucius (551-479 bc), refers to the turnip (Keng, 19 74; Prakash and Hinata, 1980). European herbal and botanical treatises of the Middle Ages clearly illustrate several Brassica types, and Dutch paintings of the 16th and 17th centuries show many examples of brassicas. In the 18th century, species of coles, cabbages, rapes and mustards were described in the genera Brassica and Sinapis in Institutiones Rei Herbariae (de Tournefort, 1700) and Species Plantarum (Linnaeus, 1735). Probably the

© G.R. Dixon 2007. Vegetable Brassicas and Related Crucifers (G.R. Dixon)

most important early, formal classification of Brassica was made by Otto Eugen Schultz (1874-1936), published in Das Pflanzenreich and Die Naturlichen Pflanzenfamilien (Schultz, 1919 and 1936, respectively). These classifications were supported broadly by the great American botanist and horticulturist L. H. Bailey (1922, 1930).

Brassica crops worldwide provide the greatest diversity of products used by man derived from a single genus. Other members of the family Brassicaceae extend this diversity. Collectively, brassicas deliver leaf, flower and root vegetables that are eaten fresh, cooked and processed; used as fodder and forage, contributing especially overwintering supplies for meat- and milk-producing domesticated animals; sources of protein and oil used in low fat edible products, for illumination and industrial lubricants; condiments such as mustard, herbs and other flavourings; and soil conditioners as green manure and composting crops. New avenues for our use of brassicas are becoming apparent. The tiny cruciferous weed Arabidopsis thaliana has become a power house for molecular biology, Fast Plants™ are forming important educational and research tools, and more generally brassicas are seen as functional foods with long-term roles in the fight against cancer and coronary diseases.

Wild diploid Brassica and their related hybrid amphidiploids (Greek: amphi = both; diploos = double; possessing the diploid genomes from both parents) evolved naturally in inhospitable places with abilities to withstand drought, heat and salt stresses. The Korean botanist U (1935) deduced that three basic diploid brassica forms were probably the parents of subsequent amphidiploid crops. Brassica nigra (black mustard), itself the ancestor of culinary mustards, is found widely distributed as annual herbs growing in shallow soils around most rocky Mediterranean coasts. Natural populations of B. oleracea and associated types are seen as potential progenitors of many European cole vegetables. These inhabit rocky cliffs in cool damp coastal habitats. They have slow, steady growth rates and are capable of conserving water and nutrients. The putative ancestor of many Oriental brassica vegetables, B. rapa,2 originates from the fertile crescent in the high plateaux regions in today's Iran-Iraq-Turkey. Here these plants grow rapidly in the hot, dry conditions, forming copious seed. Other family members evolved as semi-xerophytes in the Saharo-Sindian regions in steppe and desert climates. Early human hunter-gatherers and farmers discovered that the leaves and roots of these plants provided food and possessed medicinal and purgative properties when eaten either raw or after boiling. Some types supplied lighting oil extracted from the seed and others were simply very useful as animal feed. These simple herbs have developed into a massive array of essential vegetable crops grown and marketed around the world (see Fig. 1.1).

Biogeography Crop

Fig. 1.1. Biogeography of the origins and diversity of the major crop-founding Brassica species (United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, Rome).


Fig. 1.1. Biogeography of the origins and diversity of the major crop-founding Brassica species (United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, Rome).

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