Brassica oleracea, variety gemmifera
by Master Gardener Linda Rose
Forerunners of the Brussels sprouts we know today (Brassica oleracea, variety gemmifera) are believed to have originated in the Mediterranean region and were brought to northern Europe by the Romans. They were first widely grown around the sixteenth century in Belgium—hence the name Brussels sprouts—but their popularity spread throughout Northern Europe. They were subsequently introduced to North America by the French but were not widely grown in this country until the twentieth century.
Brussels sprouts are subject to the same pests, diseases and cultural problems as other cole crops, particularly broccoli. If sprouts form loose tufts of leaves instead of firm sprouts, they probably developed during weather that was too hot. Pests include caterpillars, cabbage loopers, armyworms, snails, slugs, aphids and harlequin bugs. Many of these pests can be controlled by applying Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), a safe biological control. There is no effective control for cabbage maggot. Many of the cole crop disease can be prevented through frequent crop rotation and other good food gardening. Irrigation practices are important. Try not to wet the foliage and do not overwater—keep the soil evenly moist. Allowing the soil to dry out will cause stronger flavor.
Brussels sprouts are low in calories and high in Vitamin C, folic acid, Vitamin B6, Vitamin K potassium and iron. They also include a substance called sulforaphane, a phytochemical being researched for potential anticancer properties. Boiling reduces the amount of sulforaphane but steaming or stir frying do not have this same effect. As with other vegetables containing Vitamin K (which encourages clotting), you may want to check with your doctor before eating them if you have been prescribed blood-thinning medication.
You have numerous options for preparing Brussels sprouts. They can be steamed, sautéed, stir fried, grilled or roasted. Be careful not to overcook! Overcooking causes the sprouts to develop a strong flavor and odor that many people don’t like due to a substance in the sprouts that contains sulfur. Consider preparing sprouts with various toppings or additions such as olive oil, butter, Parmesan cheese, balsamic or other vinegars, bacon, nuts, seeds or a little brown sugar.
My previous experience with Brussels sprouts was not very successful. Because I planted them in the spring, the plants bolted before forming sprouts. This year, I will plant in late summer or early fall and look forward to a delicious and nutritious cool-weather crop.