For many fresh-market growers as well as home gardeners, broccoli is a must-grow crop. Yet in many locations — especially where the weather is less predictable — it's not the easiest. Each bead in a head of broccoli is an actual flower bud that blooms with maturity and has a window of critical temperature sensitivity. Because of the plant's temperature sensitivity as it transitions from the vegetative into the heading phase, most of the broccoli developed for the U.S. market targets the California region, where growing conditions are more consistent than other areas.
At Johnny's, we have been experiencing tremendous interest in more diverse broccoli types from growers all across the U.S. We coordinate our broccoli trials to collect data across multiple regions, climates, and seasons, to identify the most reliable, easy to grow, and adaptable varieties of both standard and nonstandard types. This allows a broccoli grower to plant varieties with a range of maturity dates and tolerances, across sequential seasonal slots, as a risk-mitigation technique. Should unfavorable conditions set in to compromise one variety, there will be alternatives to bring to the table.
Here in the Northeast, growers are increasing the amount of mini broccolis they are producing, much of which seems to be the broccoli x gailan-type crosses. There are also increases in the production of broccoli raab and leaf broccolis in the Northeast. These various summer-sprouting types are being produced as annuals. We've also been conducting trials in the Pacific Northwest, as well as the greater Mid-Atlantic region, to advance our understanding of a group we call the winter-sprouting broccolis. Also known as purple sprouting broccoli, this ancestral form of the modern standard broccolis is a true biennial that requires a period of vernalization, meaning cold exposure, to complete its life cycle.
If branching out in broccoli sounds like something you'd like to try, here are 4 uncommon broccoli types for your consideration. We've also included recommendations for a few favorites and why we think they're worth a try.
Broccoli raab is a type of broccoli that is easier to grow than most, and faster-maturing than many. Within the brassica family, broccoli raab is regarded as more closely related to the white turnip (Brassica rapa L. ssp. rapa) than to the standard heading broccolis (Brassica rapa L. ssp. italica), an association that may account for its earthy, mustardy flavor profile. Also known as cime di rape or rapini (Italian) or rapine (French) or rabe (English), this type has only recently become more popular in the States whereas, in Europe, it is a longstanding staple. Broccoli raab is especially beloved by Italians for its flavor, and for its continuous harvestability during the cooler months of the year.
Two of 'Spring Raab's' great advantages are how easy it is to grow and its cultural versatility, in that it can be grown for spring and summer harvest, as well as for overwintering in milder climates. Its unique, earthy flavor is best appreciated when prepared simply, by steaming, sautéing, or grilling, then dressed with a good olive oil, garlic, and a sprinkling of pepper flakes or shaved parmigiano-reggiano.
Another leafy, cool-season green popular in southern Italy, Spigariello 'Liscia' has a sweet but hearty, brocco-kale-like flavor, less pungent than the raabs tend to be. Liscia means "smooth" in Italian, and the plants develop a series of soft, broad, undulating, dusky blue-green leaves that can be harvested individually as needed over the season. Alternatively, the plant can be left to mature until small, broccoli-like florets emerge from within, atop the growing point, then harvested whole for bunching.
In the kitchen, trim stems and use as a salad green, wilting green, or soup green — sautée, stir-fry, lightly steam or braise. 'Liscia' is excellent in stews, casseroles and curries, or in the simplest side dish: Stir-fry in coconut oil and sliced garlic until bright green; top with toasted pignoli.
This prolific, easy-to-grow JSS Exclusive is one of our all-time home-garden favorites. But it is a tried-and-true winner for the market gardener as well, because 'Happy Rich' produces side shoots that are ready to eat much sooner than most other broccoli types, requiring only about 50 days between planting and harvesting, and it continues produces for a prolonged harvest. Its dark-green florets resemble small heads of broccoli; its stems remain tender and sweet, rather than becoming tough and fibrous like most standard broccolis; and its leaves are tender and edible as well. It also performs much better under heat, drought, or fertility stress than standard broccoli.
Although widely known as winter-sprouting and purple-sprouting broccoli, some varieties of this group have white flowers, and we often refer to them as the late-sprouting broccolis. Long cherished in milder-winter areas of the United Kingdom, we believe there is also strong potential in areas of the US market for this type.
The key to success is meeting their vernalization requirement. As touched upon in the introduction, vernalization is a process involving exposure over time to cold temperatures, and it is necessary for the plant to transition from its leafy/vegetative phase into its flowering/reproductive, or heading stage. Take note that the primary governing variable in this process is time, whereas the secondary variable is temperature.
Vernalization requirements of winter-sprouting broccolis vary by variety, and like most things in nature the data points form a bell-shaped curve. It helps to recall that evolutionarily, broccoli's "wild Mediterranean cousins" evolved in the overwintering-friendly climate created by peninsular and island landforms surrounded by large, temperature-moderating waterbodies. On average, vernalization requirements range from 6–8 weeks' cumulative exposure to temperatures at or below 50°F/10°C.
One of the distinguishing characteristics of 'Santee' is its relatively minimal vernalization requirements, compared to other winter-sprouting types, meaning it requires less cold exposure to form florets. This allows it to be grown in different seasonal slots — as an early-summer-plant for fall-harvest crop, or as a late-summer-plant for winter-harvest crop — depending upon the grower's latitude, regional seasonal temperature variability, and setting — for open field, cold frames, or winter tunnel production. Produces abundant, diminutive, tender, nutrient-packed bicolor florets that can be eaten freshly-cut or cooked.
Uncommon Broccolis • Good for You & Easier, Too
And that's a wrap for the latest unusual broccolis on offer for your gardening experimentation, culinary invention, or leveraging at the market — though we anticipate more gems from our broccoli-breeding pipeline in the next few years.
All of these cultivars qualify as broccoli-but-better, good-for-you plants in the mustard family, aka cruciferous vegetables or cole crops. These are vegetables that contain high amounts of the phytonutrients believed to be highly protective of one's health: the
From a practical standpoint, however, they all offer the grower conveniences of one sort of another, whether they're quicker or easier to grow or to harvest than most of standard heading broccoli cultivars. So whether you're like to branch out in broccoli for business, pleasure, or some of each — as most of us do — we hope these recommendations help provide some diversification options for you to slot into your production plans this year.
Refer to the following for additional guidance on growing broccoli.
- Broccoli • Standard Heading Varieties • Planting Program
- Broccoli • Mini & Sprouting Broccoli Varieties • Planting Program
- Late-Sprouting (aka Winter-Sprouting) Broccoli • Growing Instructions Tech Sheet (PDF)
- Early-Sprouting (aka Summer-Sprouting) Broccoli / Broccoli x Gai-Lon (Gai Lan) • Growing Instructions Tech Sheet (PDF)
- Success with Brassicas • Advice on Timing, Temperature, Fertility & Watering Article
- Common Brassica Pests & Diseases Article