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A member of the Cruciferae family, cabbage is of two species, common cabbage (Brassica oleracea) and Chinese cabbage (Brassica rapa ssp. pekinensis and Brassica rapa ssp. chinensis). Common cabbage is of three types, white, savoy, and red. The word “cabbage” is kappes in German, kappertjes in Dutch, cabut in French, apuccio in Italian, keposta in Slavic, and cabaiste in Irish. A cole crop, which is any member of the Cruciferae family, cabbage is related to Brussels sprouts, broccoli, cauliflower, kale, and kohlrabi. Cabbage is the most widely grown cole crop.

Common Cabbage

Wild species of cabbage are native to the Mediterranean Basin, leading to the inference that humans may have first cultivated cabbage in this region. The ancient Egyptians and Hebrews did not cultivate cabbage, though the plant was known in classical Greece. In the fourth century BCE, Greek philosopher Aristotle and his pupil and botanist Theophrastus were familiar with cabbage. In the second century BCE, Roman agricultural writer Cato the Elder and first-century CE Roman agricultural writer Columella mentioned cabbage. Columella’s contemporary, Roman encyclopedist Pliny the Elder, listed several varieties: Pompeii cabbage, Sabellian cabbage, Lacuturna cabbage, Tritian cabbage, Bruttioim cabbage, Cumae cabbage, and Le Riccia cabbage. The ancients grew cabbage primarily as a medicine. They believed the consumption of cabbage was useful to treat gout, diarrhea, colic, stomachache, headache, and curiously deafness. The ancients drank cabbage juice to counteract the effect of poison mushrooms and to cure hoarseness and hangover.

In the Middle Ages, cabbage spread from the Mediterranean Basin to Europe. In the ninth century Frankish king Charlemagne cultivated it in his garden. The Arabs were familiar with a type of cabbage that they called Spanish cabbage. The monks in Europe grew cabbage for their own sustenance. The fact that Europeans grew cabbage for food suggests that it was no longer primarily a medicine. Medieval peasants preferred white cabbage, though the herbals of the 16th century also mentioned savoy and red cabbage. The fact that people in the early modern era called vegetable gardens cabbage gardens suggests that the crop must have been a staple. Europeans made white cabbage into sauerkraut, and Captain James

Cook, recognizing its value in preventing scurvy, issued it to his sailors in the 18th century. So important was the use of cabbage against scurvy that Great Britain funded the making of sauerkraut to supply sailors. In the 18th century, Europeans grew several varieties: York, Brunswick, Strasbourg, Ulm, Ambervil- liers, de Bonnenil, and Saint Denis. Curiously, Pliny’s varieties appear not to have made the list.

By the 20th century, farmers grew cabbage in virtually every country, cultivating it as far north as the Arctic Circle. In Eastern Europe, cabbage totaled roughly one-third of vegetable crops. Yet the consumption of cabbage has declined where incomes have risen. Worldwide, consumers prefer white cabbage. Savoy and red cabbage area confined to Europe. Cabbage does well in most soil as long as it has enough water. The later the maturity of cabbage the heavier the soil should be to retain water. Nevertheless, the soil should drain well. Tolerant of slightly acidic soil, cabbage grows best in a soil with a pH between 6 and 6.5. Tolerant of moderate salinity, cabbage is nonetheless susceptible to diseases in soil that contains too much salt. Farmers may rotate cabbage with several crops, thought it may absorb so much water that it is in shortage for the following crop. The roots grow laterally so that 70-80 percent is in the upper 20 to 30 centimeters of soil. After one to two months of growth, roots penetrate more deeply. Cabbage responds to a dearth of water by sending roots deep into the soil. Because cabbage consumes large quantities of water, the provision of water through rainfall or irrigation is important. The more mature a cabbage plant the greater is its consumption of water.

In temperate locales, cabbage is biennial, producing vegetative growth in its first year and seeding in the second. Above 57°F, cabbage grows vegetatively and beneath this temperature it seeds. Temperatures between 59°F and 68°F are best for vegetative growth. Cabbage will not grow above 77°F, though young plants are more tolerant of high temperatures than mature plants. A crop may begin to grow just above 32°F. It can endure temperatures as low as 14°F. Below this temperature, it suffers frost damage.

Cabbage is not an ideal crop where winter temperatures fall below 32°F. Instead, it may be grown year-round in areas with mild winters and cool summers. In the United States, farmers grow cabbage year-round with a winter and spring harvest in the South and a summer and autumn harvest in the North. Commercial growers often sow seeds in a seedbed, transplanting young plants in the field. Although, as we have seen, seeds will germinate above 32°F, they germinate at higher temperatures quicker. Whereas plants germinate in 14 days at 50°F, they germinate in 7 days with temperatures above 68°F. The farmer may transplant cabbage 4 to 10 weeks after germination. Excessive nitrogen may injure young plants, though applications of phosphorus and potassium may be beneficial. One authority recommends the application of 264 to 528 pounds per acre of superphosphate as a source of phosphorus and 264 to 528 pounds per acre of muriate of potash or potassium sulfate as a source of potassium. By 1969, cabbage yielded 10 to 100 metric tons per hectare. The largest white cabbages produced heads that weighed more than 10 kilograms. White cabbage yielded more than savoy and red cabbage. The latter two produced 10 to 40 metric tons per hectare.

Popular in the 1990s and again in recent years, the cabbage soup diet promises to help the overweight shed 10 pounds in only one week. One version of the diet promised a loss of 17 pounds per week. The diet works because one cup of shredded cabbage contains only 17 calories. The body must burn more calories in chewing and digesting cabbage than it derives from the vegetable. The centerpiece of the diet is a soup of cabbage, carrots, red pepper, onion, celery, and tomato, which the dieter may eat in unlimited quantities. The diet is so hard on the body that its proponents counsel the dieter to discontinue the regimen after one week, resuming it only after consuming a normal diet for at least two weeks.

In 2008, China was the leading producer of cabbage. India ranked second, Russia third, South Korea fourth, and Japan fifth. Not a leading producer, the United States ranked ninth.

One cup of cabbage contains 91 percent of the recommended daily allowance of vitamin K and 50 percent of vitamin C. Cabbage also has fiber, manganese, vitamin B6, folic acid, thiamine, riboflavin, beta-carotene, calcium, potassium, tryptophan, magnesium, and protein. Cabbage may protect one against cancer.

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