Many people are shocked to discover that broccoli (Brassica oleracea italica), a ubiquitous supermarket vegetable, is actually a man-made and human invention.
Equally surprising is the fact that broccoli, kale, brussel sprouts, collard greens, cauliflower, cabbage, and gai lan – all diverse and commercially important crops – are also just human-made cultivars of the same exact species of wild cabbage (Brassica oleracea; family: Brassicaceae).
Origins and Cultivation
The origin of broccoli is the subject of intense genetic analysis .
Cultivation of wild cabbage (Brassica oleracea), the ancestral species to broccoli, may have occurred thousands of years ago when humans decided to cultivate wild cabbage that grew along limestone sea cliffs of the Mediterranean.
The precursor to the broccoli was first popularized by the ancient Etruscans, who lived in Italy around 800 B.C.
The Etruscans were masters of horticulture and experimented often with varieties of wild cabbage. Selective breeding eventually resulted in a hybrid with a larger flower head that became the broccoli.
From Italy starting in the 1600s, the Calabrese variety spread across Europe. Broccoli spread to the U.K. in the 1800s, where it was first introduced as “Italian asparagus.” And eventually became known today as a “Calabrese.”
Broccoli was then introduced by Italian immigrants to America in the 1920s. However, it didn’t gain popularity until after WWII and the 1970s, when cold-resistant and commercially successful varieties were introduced.
Varieties of Broccoli
The most common variety of broccoli in most supermarkets today is the same Calabrese broccoli popularized in the 1600s.
In California, where 90% of U.S. broccoli is grown in America, multiple hybrids of the Calabrese broccoli are used in commercial production .
Other popular hybrids stemming from the original Calabrese include:
- Belstar – which is known for growing well in the South in winter.
- Destiny – known for its high heat tolerance.
- DiCicco – Italian heirloom that produces small to medium blue-green heads of non-uniform maturity. And great for home gardens.
- Eastern Magic – which is adapted to cold northern climates like the Northeast US and Canada.
- Purple Sprouting – cold-hardy heirloom that produces multiple small tender purple flowers.
- Romanesco – Italian heirloom known for lime green spiral florets and are sensitive to high temperatures.
- Sun King – a flavorful variety with high heat tolerance and large broccoli heads.
- Diplomat – known for mildew-resistance, quick blooms (2 months), and cold-tolerance.
Of course, there are also other commonly eaten close relatives:
- Broccoflower – a hybrid of broccoli and cauliflower known for its slightly sweet and mild flavor. Resembles a green cauliflower and can be cooked the same way.
- Broccolini – a hybrid of broccoli and Chinese broccoli developed in Australia. Known for their tender and delicious thin asparagus-like stems and tiny broccoli heads.
- Broccoli Raab – also known as broccoletti, Italian broccoli, rabe, and rapini, these actually are a different species (Brassica rapa) that includes the turnip. Known for its bitter taste used in Italian cooking.
- Chinese broccoli (kailaan, gai lan, choy sum) – native to China, this variety derives from the same species (Brassica oleracea var. alboglabra) as broccoli; known for their thick flat leaves and thick stems with small flower heads that resemble tiny broccolis.
Is Broccoli a GMO?
No, although there are dozens of hybrids of broccoli, they are not considered a genetic modified organism (GMO).
GMOs are defined as an organism whose DNA has been modified in the lab to express different flavors and genes. Broccoli, on the other hand, has not been modified in a lab. But has evolved naturally via human selective breeding over thousands of years from wild cabbage.
 Stansell, Z., & Björkman, T. (2020, October 1). From landrace to modern hybrid broccoli: the genomic and morphological domestication syndrome within a diverse B. oleracea collection. Horticulture Research, 7(1). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41438-020-00375-0.
 Lewis, M., et. al. (1996). Broccoli Production in California. UC Vegetable Research & Information Center. Retrieved October 16, 2022, from https://anrcatalog.ucanr.edu/pdf/7211.pdf.