The History of Broccoli

Fresh Broccoli

The Spruce / Molly Watson

As far as vegetables are concerned, broccoli is a bit divisive–people either love it or hate it, but its history as a preferred source of food and nutrition has existed since the Roman Empire.

Like the artichoke, broccoli is essentially a large edible flower. The stalks and flower florets are eaten both raw and cooked and have a flavor reminiscent of cabbage, though broccoli is also related to kale, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts.

Although some cooks do enjoy them prepared in the manner of chard or kale, the bitter leaves are usually discarded in preparing broccoli for a meal. Depending on which type of broccoli you get, though, their taste can range from mild to extremely bitter.

From Discovery to Commercial Farming

Broccoli, botanically known as Brassica oleracea italica, is native to the Mediterranean. It was engineered from a cabbage relative by the Etruscans—an ancient Italian civilization who lived in what is now Tuscany—who were considered to be horticultural geniuses. Its English name, broccoli, is derived from the Italian word broccolo, which means "the flowering crest of a cabbage," and the Latin brachium meaning arm, branch, or shoot.

Broccoli has been considered a very valuable food by the Italians since the Roman Empire, but when first introduced in England in the mid-18th century, broccoli was referred to as "Italian asparagus."

There are records of Thomas Jefferson, who was an avid gardener, experimenting with broccoli seeds brought over from Italy in the late 1700s, but although commercial cultivation of broccoli dates back to the 1500s, it did not become a popular foodstuff in the United States until Southern Italian immigrants brought it over in the early 1920s.

Due to the many ways it can be cooked, as well as all of the health benefits, broccoli has tripled in consumption over the past 30 years.

Varieties and Nutritional Contents of Broccoli

The large head and thick stalk broccoli we are most familiar with is Calabrese broccoli (named after Calabria, Italy), although it is typically labeled simply as broccoli. Even though it is available in stores year-round, it is a cold-weather crop. There is another variety that features several thin stalks and heads called sprouting broccoli, and you may also come across Romanesco broccoli, which is tightly packed in a cone shape and is bright green in color. 

If you like broccoli, you may want to try broccolini, also called baby broccoli, which is a cross between broccoli and kale, or you might find broccoflower, a cross between broccoli and cauliflower, an appealing snack if you're a fan of both of these flowering vegetables.

No matter which variety you get, broccoli is rich in calcium and has antioxidant properties which help prevent some forms of cancer. The same sulfur that can cause gas from over-cooked broccoli also has beneficial antiviral and antibiotic properties.