It has been domesticated across Asia for so long, its movements have become opaque.
In March, I planted a tray of bok choy seedlings using a packet of seed I’d found in the refrigerator section of Longdan, my local Vietnamese grocer. I’d stood in front of the seed packets for ages, knowing how little space I had at home for growing: just three deep window boxes I’d bared of geraniums a few weeks earlier. I decided on Shanghai bok choy, daikon, and shiso, knowing that these were three things I cooked and ate often. Familiar crops—except where I’d normally find them in the supermarket, airfreighted and chilled; I wanted them to come from my kitchen window.
Ten days later, the puckered green leaves emerged from the soil, stretching higher and faster than anything else I’d grown before. Within a few weeks, they’d begun to resemble miniature bok choys, the size of a fridge magnet, and curled toward the sunlight. In mid-April, I planted them outside, protected from slugs and snails with a small fence of copper chicken wire.
In the weeks that followed, I cut their outer leaves, taking care with my scissors so that the tender cores might continue to grow. I used them in soups and curries, letting the plants redouble their efforts while still in the soil. And they continued to grow as I used them: thick emerald leaves replaced by smaller ones in jade and white. I knew that by May it would soon be too hot for bok choy—brassicas tend to prefer cooler weather—but I left each head planted to live out its full life cycle, bolting toward the sun.
Bok choy is a subspecies of Brassica rapa, one of the many brassica species we have metamorphosed through cultivation over thousands of years. Mizuna, turnip, and Chinese cabbage (napa) are all likewise Brassica rapa, shepherded toward different forms based on our preference for flowers, roots, or leaves.
Most plants we eat have been reshaped by the hands of ancestors, indigenous people, farmers, plant breeders, and scientists. Few plants, however, give us quite as much variety as brassicas. Taken together, brassicasprovide a greater diversity of crops than any other single genus cultivated on earth. The species Brassica oleracea, like B.rapa, gives us a range of crops we often forget are from the same wild ancestor: broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, kale, cabbage, kohlrabi, among others. Brassica napus gives us canola oil, as well as fodder and forage for livestock.
I cut their outer leaves, taking care with my scissors so that the tender cores might continue to grow.
The process of domestication and transformation occurs in small steps over many years—and in this case, centuries or millennia. A seed selected from a particularly showy inflorescence is eventually shepherded toward broccoli, while an especially tight leaf cone one day gives us cabbage.
Undomesticated, the brassicas are scrappy plants, well-suited to dry soil and drought-like conditions. The two you likely know best—field mustard, or B. rapa, and wild cabbage, or B. oleracea—are both identifiable by their blue-green leaves and delicate yellow flowers. In the wild, the leaves will be smaller, thicker, but the versions we have selected for ourselves favor other features: large flower heads, thin leaves, compact heads. While B. oleracea has been cultivated for over two thousand years, with its home in the Mediterranean, B. rapa is much harder to trace: Originally native to the Fertile Crescent, the earliest mention of the species is said to have been over thirty-five hundred years ago in the Sanskrit Upanishads. It has been domesticated across Asia for so long, its movements have become opaque.
As much as the transformations of these crops have been a product of human care, efforts to understand and trace the transformations also rely on the things we’d conventionally deem “culture”: Scholars trace not just genetic and molecular records of brassicas across geographies and time; they also search for references to them in literature.
In Athenaeus’s Banquet of the Learned, from the third century AD, they are mentioned in the forms of turnips and leaves, while Aristotle mentions radishes in the Historia animalium, from the fourth-century-BCE. Chinese cabbages and their ancestors have been harder to trace, with scholars scouring texts from the third-century- BCE for mentions of radishes and mustards. But by tracing the places these words do appear and when, scholars attempt to reconstruct the journey of brassicas eastward from the Fertile Crescent. In tracking descriptions, synonyms, and the seeds of our contemporary words for brassicas, they demonstrate how our knowledge of plants relies upon history, stories, and language.
I was a strange child, with a palate more accustomed to bitterness than sweetness. I would ask my mother to cook me brussels sprouts—sautéed with butter and shallots and cooking sherry—but rarely wanted candies. In adolescence, I craved rapini and gai lan, salty and oil-slick, perfumed with garlic.
In adulthood, I’ve grown fond of cabbage, every few weeks buying a flat pale green head from my local Turkish grocer. There, the sign tells me it is a Turkish cabbage, but it is a cabbage I know as Taiwanese. I take it home and cut it into thick wedges, softening it with salt, oil, and heat and anointing it with garlic and chili. I eat it alone by the bowlful on weekend afternoons, thinking of the fried cabbage my Ayi cooked for me in Taipei and the braised cabbage my mother cooks when I visit her. Peasant food, she always calls it, but I cannot think of any vegetable more joyous, more versatile, more rich with memory than a cabbage.
The plants we call crops are always bound up with culture—domestication is the process of becoming at home with them. When we speak about crops, it can seem so easy to forget that they are plants—derived through our care and attention from wild relatives. So often, engaging with crops is a mode of enculturation—a link not just to land but to the languages, identities, and nations that have created them, prized them, and passed them down.
Consider for example the tiny jade sculpture that sits in pride of place at Taiwan’s National Palace Museum. Carved by an unknown artist in the nineteenth century, it was once part of the imperial collection in the Forbidden City. Transported to Taiwan in the 1940s, it is now considered an object of vital heritage not just to Taiwan, but across a Chinese diaspora. It is a sculpture of a cabbage.
I cannot think of any vegetable more joyous, more versatile, more rich with memory than a cabbage.
Or last summer, when I planted a communal garden with my neighbors in Berlin. Grünkohl has been a German staple since long before kale, as it’s called in English, became trendy. It’s sold in bags so enormous—the size of toddler is a good reference—that not once in six years did I manage to fit one in my refrigerator, let alone actually finish one. It’s typically eaten with sausages or chopped finely into stews. So in an act of assimilation, an attempt at showing my German neighbors I really could fit in, I picked out kale as one of the crops we should grow in our shared vegetable patch.
To my surprise, one of my younger neighbors told me she didn’t find it terribly exciting. She preferred American kale—she said it in English, to distinguish the tender green leaves from the tougher, curlier-leaved Grünkohl—and hoped we might plant that instead. And really, I shouldn’t have been surprised: As much as plants come to stand in for culture, they don’t stand still. The borders we draw between cultures and crops have grown more fluid than we can imagine.
Brassicas, then, tell a story of care and entanglement, but also a story of our human cultures. They show us not solely how we have reshaped the wild, but the ways our peoples, languages, and literatures have traveled across continents: from the Mediterranean to eastern Europe, from the Fertile Crescent along the Silk Road, to our contemporary lust for kale chips.
It can be easy to forget that the crops we cook and eat daily were once wild things, though field mustard and wild cabbage grow plentifully—I search for them on my daily walks through city parks, in roadside verges, and in scrubby meadows. That we can have so altered them from their original forms is simply testament to the notion that, as Michael Pollan writes in The Botany of Desire, plants are “willing partners in an intimate and reciprocal relationship with us.”
And this entanglement with plants is not a thing of the past, but continues in shape-shifted forms. In the 1990s, a variety of stem broccoli was developed by the Japanese seed company and plant breeder Sakata, crossing gai lan with broccoli. But plant breeding in our contemporary age is a different thing than the kind of slow and measured selection we might have carried out in centuries past—which gifted us so many of the crops we love.
The crop Sakata developed, known in Japan as Asparation, is instead treated as an object of intellectual property in all the places it is sold: marketed in the US under the registered trademark Broccolini and in the UK as Tenderstem. The journey from a crop’s wild relative to a trademark might seem vast, but to me this underscores all the more that in the process of transforming the natural world, we are reminded that humans, too, are a part of it.
Last night, I brought in the last of the bolted bok choy, which had grown dry in the summer heat. A few weeks ago, the plants had been studded with yellow flowers—featherlight and tissue-thin. They resembled almost exactly the photos of wild mustard blooms I’d seen in researching this essay, and suddenly the distance between that wild plant and our carefully cultivated bok choy seemed miniscule. As I sat with my husband, hulling the tiny brown seeds from their pods, I imagined all the possibilities these seeds might contain. I imagined just what, when planted and watered next year, they might grow to be.
Jessica J. Lee is a British-Canadian-Taiwanese author, environmental historian, and winner of the Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction, the Banff Mountain Book Award, the Boardman Tasker Award for Mountain Literature, and the RBC Taylor Prize Emerging Writer Award. She is the author of two books of nature writing, Turning and Two Trees Make a Forest, and co-editor of the essay collection Dog Hearted. Jessica has a PhD in Environmental History and Aesthetics and is the founding editor of The Willowherb Review. She teaches creative writing at the University of Cambridge.