Our cabbage has an oriental touch

Researchers inves­ti­gating the link between cabbage vari­eties revealed that our cabbage in North­west Europe has a histor­ical connec­tion to the Middle East – which could favour the future devel­op­ment of new climate resiliant cabbage vari­ties.

Resilient cabbage vari­eties like kale, head cabbage, and brus­sels sprouts appear well-suited to the climate of North­western Europe. However, the journey of many cabbage species from their wild ances­tors, which were orig­i­nally found along the North Sea coast, to the culti­vated forms we recog­nise today has been quite exten­sive.

This lengthy evolu­tion has been high­lighted in a compre­hen­sive study conducted by a team of Dutch scien­tists. The research revealed that cabbage (Bras­sica oler­acea) was domes­ti­cated inde­pen­dently in multiple regions, resulting in a diverse range of crops including tuber-producing vari­eties (like swedes), flow­ering types (like cauli­flower and broc­coli), and compact head cabbages.

“The study demon­strates the rela­tive ‘ease’ with which cabbage can be domes­ti­cated, as evidenced by its ability to inde­pen­dently develop edible flowers in different regions,” says Guusje Bonnema, a breeding researcher at Wageningen Univer­sity, who led the study.

Selec­tion and the tin traders

Guusje Bonnema is a breeding researcher at the Wageningen Univer­sity. Photo: WUR

Along with her team, Guusje compared the DNA of modern hybrid cabbage vari­eties with a diverse range of landraces (a landrace is gener­ally defined as a culti­vated, genet­i­cally hetero­ge­neous, localised variety that are adapted to the soil and climatic condi­tions of its locality and tradi­tional managemnt prac­tices) obtained from gene banks world­wide.

By analyzing DNA frag­ments or ‘finger­prints’ they were able to trace the genetic rela­tion­ships between different cabbage plants. So what did they find?

Early Euro­pean selec­tion focused on wild vari­eties with abun­dant and varied leaves, laying the foun­da­tion for today’s curly kale and palm cabbage, expalins Guusje. “From that breeding led to Asia, where addi­tional traits got combined with the Western Euro­pean kale vari­eties.” This has raised an intriguing ques­tion: How did these traits make their way to Asia?

The tin trade is believed to have played a signif­i­cant role. Tin mining activ­i­ties along the British and French coasts around 2500BC likely facil­i­tated the trans­port of seeds to the Middle East aboard ships. “We suspect that these early cabbage vari­eties contributed to the devel­op­ment of head cabbages and cauli­flower,” explains Guusje. “These culti­vated vari­eties were subse­quently cross­bred with wild rela­tives in Asia, before even­tu­ally making their way back to Western Europe where they under­went further refine­ment.”


Research has provided valu­able insights into the genetic diver­sity stored in gene banks, which is crucial for breeders because it enables them to better under­stand the extent of vari­a­tion among cabbage vari­eties and their genetic rela­tion­ships. Breeders are currently focused on enhancing the resilience of crops to with­stand climate chal­lenges.

“Family photo”: cabbage displays extra­or­di­nary genetic rich­ness. Photo: WUR

“The abun­dance of options avail­able for breeding resilient cabbage vari­eties, high­lights the wealth of genetic diver­sity within the cabbage family”, says Jorrit Lind, a bras­sica breeder at Bejo Zaden, who is actively involved in this endeavor. Farmers seek robust vari­eties that can thrive in extreme condi­tions for extended periods. While this new knowl­edge doesn’t offer imme­diate access to drought-resis­tant parent plants from the Middle East, the research is vital in guiding our breeding efforts.

“The vari­eties histor­i­cally culti­vated in regions like Turkey, Syria, and Lebanon are no longer suited for modern agri­cul­tural prac­tices,” he continues. “There­fore, our breeding work involves selecting traits from the genetic pool of our north­western euro­pean vari­eties and their rela­tives in the Middle East region.”

Elab­o­rate Trait

Jorrit believes that there is room for advance­ment in pre-breeding; a funda­mental aspect of breeding, through the inte­gra­tion of traits from wild rela­tives or the exchange of char­ac­ter­is­tics among closely related cabbage types.

“However, it is impor­tant not to jump ahead of ourselves,” he adds. “Even with the assis­tance of inno­v­a­tive tech­niques like gene editing – if permitted for use – modi­fying climate resilience is not as simple as toggling a few genes on or off. Climate resilience is a multi­fac­eted trait influ­enced by numerous genes. Yet, with a deeper under­standing of genetic rela­tion­ships, my opti­mism for future advance­ments has only grown.”