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Broccolini: What’s in a Name?

Broccolini. Photo by Jonathan Mitschele
Broccolini. Photo by Jonathan Mitschele
 

June 1, 2020

By Jonathan Mitschele

Last April I bought a peat tray of six seedlings labeled “sprouting broccoli” because no ordinary broccoli was available, and I transplanted the seedlings into my garden. I also had a packet of Piracicaba “non-heading broccoli” seed that I had bought a year or three earlier but had never grown successfully. Why not give it a try, too, I thought, and I started a six-pack of Piracicaba. By mid-June or so I began harvesting florets from my first planting of sprouting broccoli and a month or so later from my Piracicaba. We enjoyed our “broccoli” all summer and froze a good deal for winter dining. I was still harvesting enough small florets from the two plantings for a meal once or twice a week until hard frost in late October.

Harvest from my two plantings started earlier, lasted much longer, was more abundant and tasted much better to my wife, Madeleine, and me than those of any other broccolis I have grown. Those were good reasons to grow Piracicaba and related vegetables again this year. Which brings us to the question: Just what was it that I grew?

It turns out that seed catalogs offer a rather long list of “sprouting” or “non-heading” cultivars of broccoli – Di Cicco, Green Sprouting, Early Purple Sprouting and Italian Sprouting, to name a few. These sprouting broccolis grow into sturdy plants, often reaching a height of 2 1/2 feet in my garden, and produce numerous smaller heads over an extended season rather than the single large head that one-cut standard broccoli typically produces.  

But what I grew last year was none of these. The photo I took in late summer of Madeleine, who is 5 1/2 feet tall, standing next to one of my “sprouting broccolis” from the nursery offers a clue to its identity. The plant is about 4 feet high, nearly double the height of my broccoli plants. My unnamed nursery plants and my Piracicaba plants are examples of the so-called mini-broccolis or broccolinis, many of which are broccoli x gai lan (Chinese broccoli) crosses. The names mini-broccoli and broccolini (Italian for “little broccoli”) are rather ironic, for these plants exhibit what plant breeders term “hybrid vigor,” exemplified by the much greater size of my “sprouting broccolis” relative to their parents.

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