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Brassica oleracea L. (headed cabbage)

Sp. pl. 2: 667 (1753).
Brassicaceae (Cruciferae)
Chromosome number
2n = 18
Vernacular names
Headed cabbage, cabbage (En). Chou pommé, chou cabus (Fr). Couve repolho (Po). Kabichi, kabichu (Sw).
Origin and geographic distribution
Headed cabbage evolved in north-western Europe during the early Middle Ages from leafy unbranched and thin-stemmed kales, which were introduced in Roman times from the Mediterranean area, where Brassica oleracea and related species occur naturally in coastal areas. Wild types of Brassica oleracea growing along the coasts of western Europe may have contributed to the development. Whereas the primitive types were originally cultivated for medicinal purposes, headed cabbage had become one of the most important vegetables in 16th century Europe. From then onwards headed cabbage was introduced worldwide. In tropical and subtropical areas commercial cultivation is still mostly restricted to the cooler climates of the highlands or to the mild cool seasons at higher latitudes. In Africa headed cabbage is especially common in East Africa and Egypt.
Headed cabbage is usually consumed as a cooked or stir-fried vegetable, sometimes pickled. It is also eaten fresh as an ingredient of coleslaw (a salad made of raw sliced or chopped cabbage) and mixed salads. It may be preserved by steaming and drying or by anaerobic fermentation in brine (sauerkraut).
Production and international trade
The importance of headed cabbage in tropical and subtropical regions, mainly early maturing white headed cabbage with firm and round to flat heads (1–2.5 kg), has increased considerably during recent decades. It can be fairly easily produced in large quantities, transported over great distances without much damage and stored for a few weeks. The area planted with headed cabbage worldwide in 2002 was estimated at about 3 million ha in 124 countries (producing some 62.5 million t): 2 million ha in Asia (of which 1.5 million ha in China), 0.5 million ha in Europe, 180,000 ha in the Americas, and an estimated 100,000 ha in Africa. Reliable data on areas planted annually with headed cabbage are lacking for most countries in tropical Africa. Based on sales of commercial seed, at least 40,000 ha of white headed cabbage is grown in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania together, 10,000 ha in the region covering Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe, 4000 ha in Ethiopia and 3000 ha in Cameroon. Almost all white headed cabbage is produced for local urban markets. Mozambique imports considerable quantities of headed cabbage from South Africa and until recently did so also from Zimbabwe.
The nutritional composition of white headed cabbage per 100 g edible portion (i.e. 77% of the product as purchased) is: water 90.1 g, energy 109 kJ (26 kcal), protein 1.7 g, fat 0.4 g, carbohydrate 4.1 g, dietary fibre 2.9 g, Ca 52 mg, Mg 8 mg, P 41 mg, Fe 0.7 mg, Zn 0.3 mg, carotene 385 μg, thiamin 0.15 mg, riboflavin 0.02 mg, niacin 0.5 mg, folate 75 μg, ascorbic acid 49 mg (Holland, B., Unwin, I.D. & Buss, D.H., 1991).
All Brassica crops contain glucosinolates, which in crushed leaves are hydrolyzed by the enzyme myrosinase to mostly bitter-tasting thiocyanates and volatile isothiocyanates; these compounds have antimicrobial and anticarcinogenic properties. In headed cabbage glucosinolate content is rather low (100 mg per 100 g) as a result of centuries of selection against bitter-tasting plants. In spite of its ancestry, headed cabbage does not seem to have medicinal applications.
Erect, glabrous, biennial herb up to 60 cm tall at the mature vegetative stage, up to 200 cm when flowering, with unbranched stem up to 30 cm long, gradually thickening upwards; root system strongly branched. Leaves alternate but closely arranged, sessile, basal leaves forming a rosette, upper leaves in a compact flattened globose to ellipsoid head up to 30 cm in diameter, usually simple; stipules absent; blade ovate to obovate or almost circular, up to 35 cm × 30 cm, undulate or irregularly incised to almost entire, coated with a layer of wax, whitish to pale green with whitish veins (white headed cabbage), red-purple (red headed cabbage), or green to yellow-green and puckered (savoy headed cabbage). Inflorescence a terminal paniculate raceme up to 100 cm long. Flowers bisexual, regular, 4-merous; pedicel up to 2 cm long, ascending; sepals oblong, c. 1 cm long, erect; petals obovate, 1.5–2.5 cm long, clawed, pale to bright yellow or whitish; stamens 6; ovary superior, cylindrical, 2-celled, stigma globose. Fruit a linear silique 5–10 cm × c. 5 mm, with a tapering beak 5–15 mm long, dehiscent, up to 30-seeded. Seeds globose, 2–4 mm in diameter, finely reticulate, brown. Seedling with epigeal germination, with a taproot and lateral roots; hypocotyl 3–5 cm long, epicotyl absent; cotyledons with petiole 1–2 cm long, blade cordate, 1–1.5 cm long, cuneate at base, notched at apex.
Other botanical information
Headed cabbage has been classified as convar. capitata (L.) Alef., which has been subdivided in var. capitata L. comprising white headed cabbage (with smooth white to green leaves) and red headed cabbage (with red leaves), and var. sabauda L. comprising savoy headed cabbage (with curly green leaves). These 3 types of headed cabbage can best be considered as cultivar-groups and as such have been called White Headed Cabbage Group, Red Headed Cabbage Group and Savoy Headed Cabbage Group. However, a formal distinction into these groups at world level is often considered superfluous and confusing, although at a local level it may be relevant.
Hundreds of cultivars of headed cabbage are grown worldwide. In the market gardens of tropical regions early-maturing compact and round- or flat-headed F1 hybrids of white headed cabbage are increasingly replacing the open-pollinated cultivars such as ‘Golden Acre’, ‘Copenhagen Market’, ‘Glory of Enkhuizen’, the flat-headed ‘Drumhead’ and the pointed ‘Sugarloaf’. Examples of F1 hybrid cultivars are ‘Fresco’, ‘Gloria’ (= ‘Green Boy’), ‘Green Coronet’, ‘KK Cross’, ‘KY Cross’ and ‘Hercules’. White headed cabbage hybrids of Japanese and Taiwanese origin in particular often are early maturing and have heat tolerance. Technisem markets several cultivars suitable for tropical lowland areas (e.g. coastal areas near Dakar and Abidjan) including ‘KK Cross’, ‘Fabula’, ‘Rustica’ and ‘Sahel’, which can be harvested 60–80 days after planting, and the very early (45–55 days) but smaller-headed ‘Quick Start’ and ‘Bali’. All these cultivars are Xanthomonas resistant; ‘Fabula’, ‘Rustica’ and ‘Sahel’ are Fusarium resistant too.
Red headed cabbage and savoy headed cabbage are of economic importance mainly in Europe and America, but not common in tropical regions. Examples of Taiwanese cultivars of red cabbage are ‘Scarlet’ and ‘Sunny Side’. The Technisem red headed cabbage cultivar ‘Red Ball’ is heat and Xanthomonas tolerant.
Growth and development
Seeds germinate within 3–6 days and seedlings have 4 true leaves 4–5 weeks after sowing at 15–20°C average daily temperatures. The first 7–15 leaves expand and unfold to form a rosette, commonly called the frame. Subsequent leaves only partly unfold, forming the shell of the head; the growing point increases in size, the stem thickens and the head is filled out with fleshy leaves. The head is solid and ready for harvesting 80–120 days after germination, depending on genotype and climate.
Most headed cabbage types require 6–8 weeks exposure to temperatures below 10°C for flower initiation and bolting. The main stem increases in length rapidly, causing the head to burst, and then develops a branched inflorescence. Flowering starts at the base of the inflorescence, 2–3 months after the first sign of bolting and continues for 4–5 weeks. Sporophytic self-incompatibility (1-locus system with multiple alleles) precludes natural self-fertilization. Insects, especially bees, effect cross-pollination. Seeds are mature 8–10 weeks after anthesis.
Headed cabbage grows best at average daily temperatures of 15–20°C and a diurnal variation of at least 5°C. In tropical regions these conditions are only met in highlands above 800 m. At temperatures in excess of 25°C young plants still grow well, but subsequent head formation will be retarded. Some Japanese and Taiwanese F1 hybrids are more heat-tolerant, but even these do not perform so well under lowland tropical conditions.
Most headed cabbage cultivars are daylength neutral and flower initiation is mainly induced by low temperatures. Half-grown plants can even withstand short spells of frost (–5°C).
Soils should be well drained and fertile, having good moisture retaining capacity, high organic matter content and a pH of 6.5–7.5. Because of its shallow root system, headed cabbage needs a regular supply of water throughout the growing season either by rain or irrigation. Evapotranspiration of a fully-grown headed cabbage field can reach 4 mm per day.
Propagation and planting
Dry headed cabbage seed (6% moisture content) will remain viable for at least 4–6 years when stored dry at temperatures below 18°C. Freshly harvested seed sometimes gives poor germination. Soaking overnight and rinsing with water overcomes this. After 3–4 months storage dormancy disappears. Seeds are sown on seedbeds, in pots or in trays; young seedlings may require protection from excessive sunshine by light shading. About 300–500 g seed and about 200 m2 of seedbed are required for 1 ha of cabbage. The 1000-seed weight is 3–5 g. Transplanting to the field takes place 4–5 weeks later, when the seedlings have 4–6 true leaves. Plant densities of 30,000–50,000 plants per ha are usually applied and spacing is 40–50 cm × 55–60 cm. Head size can be regulated to some extent by adjusting plant density.
Lateral shoots from decapitated stumps can be rooted and transplanted. This method of vegetative propagation is practised in breeding programmes to maintain selected plants.
Headed cabbage is often grown in rotation with maize, rice, potato, legumes, tobacco and vegetables (tomato, capsicum pepper, onion, carrot). Soil preparation includes deep digging, mixing with compost or stable manure (20–50 t/ha), followed by fine tillage. Before planting NPK fertilizer is applied and for good vegetative growth a top dressing with N fertilizer is given when head formation starts. Type of fertilizer and quantities depend on soil type, initial nutrient reserves in the soil and yield level. The uptake and removal of nutrients is high. A headed cabbage crop with a yield of 25 t/ha absorbs approximately 100 kg N, 12 kg P and 75 kg K. At least double that quantity is recommended as fertilizer gift. Growing headed cabbage on ridges during the wet season improves drainage. The crop should be kept free of weeds, especially in the first month after transplanting. Mulching (dry grass or straw) is beneficial to growth.
Diseases and pests
The most important diseases in tropical areas are: downy mildew (Peronospora parasitica) important mainly at elevations above 1200 m, and grey leaf mould (Alternaria brassicae), both of which can be controlled by fungicides and selection of tolerant cultivars; bacterial soft rot (Erwinia carotovora) under hot and humid conditions; black rot (Xanthomonas campestris pv. campestris), controlled by disease-free seeds and seedlings (some cultivars have a good level of tolerance) and avoidance of overhead irrigation; wire stem (Rhizoctonia solani), inducing damping off and vein and leaf necrosis below the head; clubroot (Plasmodiophora brassicae) a serious threat also at medium elevations (about 700 m), prevented by wide crop rotation, eradication of cruciferous weeds (alternative hosts of the pathogen), by liming and cultivation on soils with pH >7, and by stimulating antagonistic fungi in the soil (such as Trichoderma and Mortierella spp.). Clubroot has been spreading fast during the last decades and has become the most detrimental disease in many highland areas. A few cultivars appear to have some tolerance, but high levels of durable resistance to clubroot are not yet available. Other diseases are: ringspot (Mycosphaerella brassicicola); cabbage yellows (Fusarium oxysporum f.sp. conglutinans), to be controlled by crop rotation and resistant cultivars; cauliflower and turnip mosaic virus, which can be prevented by control of the aphid vectors and by eradicating hosts like wild mustard. Alum dusted on stumps has been found effective in controlling storage rots caused by Erwinia.
Important pests include: diamondback moth (Plutella xylostella) for which chemical control is increasingly ineffective because of the quick build-up of resistance to all except neem-based insecticides, whereas biological control with sex pheromones and parasitoids (Diadegma semiclausum, Apanteles plutellae, Diadromus collaris and Oomyzus sokolowski) is promising; leaf webber (Crocidolomia binotalis); web worm (Hellula undalis) particularly in southern Africa. Occasional pests are cut worm (Spodoptera littoralis), flea beetle (Phyllotreta spp.), cabbage butterfly (Pieris spp.) and cabbage aphid (Brevicoryne brassicae). Indian mustard (Brassica juncea (L.) Czern.) may be used as a trap crop for diamondback moth and other pests when planted in rows between headed cabbage; chemical control can then be restricted to the mustard plants. Tomato and onions are good repellent crops for the diamondback moth.
Well filled-out and solid heads are cut, usually with a few wrapper leaves attached, 2–3 months after transplanting. The period of harvesting is 1–2 weeks, F1 hybrids maturing more uniformly than open-pollinated cultivars. The lateral shoots developing on decapitated stumps are sometimes harvested as a sort of loose-leaved mini cabbage.
Open-pollinated cultivars yield 10–25 t/ha, F1 hybrids 40–60 t/ha under optimum growing conditions. In tropical regions yields are generally highest above 800 m altitude. Seed yields are 200–1000 kg/ha in temperate climates.
Handling after harvest
Cabbage heads can be stored for 7–10 days in a cool (20°C), well-aerated and dark space. Transportation should be in ventilated boxes, net bags or lightweight Hessian sacks. At 1°C and high relative humidity (95–98%) cabbage heads can be kept for 2–3 months.
Genetic resources
Working and germplasm collections of white cabbage and other Brassica crops are available in several research centres in Europe, Russian Federation, United States, India and Japan. In Europe a Brassica genebank has been established in cooperation with private companies. A central electronic catalogue of the collections is available at the Centre for Genetic Resources (CGN), Wageningen, Netherlands. Preservation of germplasm from the centres of genetic diversity (Mediterranean region) appears adequate and interspecific crosses within the Brassicaceae family widens the genepool available to breeders.
Present breeding programmes aim at F1 hybrids based on single crosses between inbred lines. Inbreeding is usually effected by manual bud-pollination or treatment with CO2 (2–10%) after bee pollination to temporarily break the self-incompatibility. Fully homozygous lines are now produced much faster from doubled haploids through microspore culture, a technique perfected for Brassica oleracea in the early 1990s.
Main breeding objectives include: head shape and size, internal firmness, leaf configuration and colour, core (= internal stem) length, taste, vitamin C content, earliness, standing ability (delayed splitting of the head at maturity), productivity, heat tolerance, resistance to diseases, pests and tip burn (physiological disorder). F1 hybrid cultivars with good host resistance to cabbage yellows, black rot and downy mildew have been developed. However, efforts to breed for durable resistance to clubroot have had limited success so far, due to the large genetic variability of the pathogen, the limited sources of resistance and the complex inheritance of host resistance. Headed cabbage cultivars with proven resistance in one region are frequently susceptible elsewhere due to the presence of different pathotypes of Plasmodiophora brassicae.
Commercial seed production of F1 hybrids, which was traditionally based on the system of self-incompatibility, is increasingly realized with cytoplasmic male sterility (CMS) in the female lines. The negative effects initially linked to the ‘Ogura’ system of CMS in Brassica oleracea, such as leaf chlorosis at low temperatures, low female fertility and poor insect pollination due to absence of nectar glands in the flowers, have been overcome (e.g. by hybridization with protoplasts, followed by strict selection among regenerated plants).
The importance of white headed cabbage will further increase in tropical regions. Heat-tolerant cultivars enable cultivation at lower elevations, but market gardening will continue to prevail in the highlands because of higher yield potential, better head quality and fewer disease and pest problems. Considerable progress is being made with effective methods of integrated pest management in headed cabbage and this may reduce pesticide use. Cultivars resistant to cabbage yellows and black rot are becoming increasingly available. However, clubroot is spreading fast in areas with intensive market gardening and cultivars with durable resistance will not be available in the medium term. Methods of control by antagonists to the pathogen and cultural methods deserve more attention.
The development of DNA markers by plant biotechnology for more precise indirect screening for resistance to diseases and pests, as well as other characteristics, will considerably increase breeding efficiency in headed cabbage. The seeds of Japanese hybrids are still mainly produced by self-incompatibility, but several European and American seed companies are quickly changing over to the CMS system, because of lower seed production costs and better seed quality (no inbreds). A few smaller European seed companies producing ‘biological’ seed for organic farming have refused to adopt CMS in Brassica vegetable seed production.
Major references
• Crisp, P., Crute, I.R., Sutherland, R.A., Angell, S.M., Bloor, K., Burgess, H. & Gordon, P.L., 1989. The exploitation of genetic resources of Brassica oleracea in breeding for resistance to clubroot (Plasmodiophora brassicae). Euphytica 42: 215–226.
• Dickson, M.H. & Wallace, D.H., 1986. Cabbage breeding. In: Bassett, M.J. (Editor). Breeding vegetable crops. Avi Publishing Company, Westport, Connecticut, United States. pp. 395–432.
• Duijs, J.G., Voorrips, R.E., Visser, D.L. & Custers, J.B.M., 1992. Microspore culture is successful in most crop types of Brassica oleracea L. Euphytica 60: 45–55.
• Hervé, Y., 1992. Les choux (Brassica oleracea vegetables). In: Gallais, A. & Bannerot, H. (Editors). Amélioration des espèces végétales cultivées. INRA, Paris, France. pp. 435–447.
• Holland, B., Unwin, I.D. & Buss, D.H., 1991. Vegetables, herbs and spices. The fifth supplement to McCance & Widdowson’s The Composition of Foods. 4th Edition. Royal Society of Chemistry, Cambridge, United Kingdom. 163 pp.
• Nieuwhof, M., 1969. Cole crops: botany, cultivation, and utilization. Leonard Hill, London, United Kingdom. 353 pp.
• Tindall, H.D., 1983. Vegetables in the tropics. Macmillan Press, London, United Kingdom. 533 pp.
• Tsunoda, S., Hinata, K. & Gómez-Campo, C. (Editors), 1980. Brassica crops and wild allies: biology and breeding. Japan Scientific Societies Press, Tokyo, Japan. 354 pp.
• van der Vossen, H.A.M., 1993. Brassica oleracea L. cv. groups White Headed Cabbage, Red Headed Cabbage, Savoy Headed Cabbage. In: Siemonsma, J.S. & Kasem Piluek (Editors). Plant Resources of South-East Asia No 8. Vegetables. Pudoc Scientific Publishers, Wageningen, Netherlands. pp. 117–121.
• Varela, A.M., Seif, A.A. & Loehr, B., 2001. Integrated pest management manual for Brassicas. International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE), Nairobi, Kenya. 44 pp.
Other references
• Bannerot, H., Boulidard, L. & Chupeau, Y., 1997. Unexpected difficulties met with radish cytoplasm in Brassica oleracea. Cruciferae Newsletter 2: 16.
• Charleston, D.S. & Kfir, R., 2000. The possibility of using Indian mustard, Brassica juncea, as a trap crop for the diamond-back moth, Plutella xylostella, in South Africa. Crop Protection 19(7): 455–460.
• Grubben, G.J.H., 1977. Tropical vegetables and their genetic resources. IBPGR, Rome, Italy. 197 pp.
• Imtyiaz, M., Mgadla, N.P., Chepete, B. & Manase, S.K., 2000. Response of six vegetable crops to irrigation schedules. Agricultural Water Management 45(3): 331–342.
• Manzanares-Dauleux, M.J., Divaret, I., Baron, F. & Thomas, G., 2000. Evaluation of French Brassica oleracea landraces for resistance to Plasmodiophora brassicae. Euphytica 113: 211–218.
• Mithen, R.F., 2001. Glucosinolates and their degradation products. Advances in Botanical Research 35: 214–262.
• Pelletier, G., Férault, M., Lancelin, D., Boulidard, L., Doré, C., Bonhomme, S., Grelon, M. & Budar, F., 1995. Engineering of cytoplasmic male sterility in vegetables by protoplast fusion. Acta Horticulturae 392: 11–17.
• Rubatzky, V.E. & Yamaguchi, M., 1997. World vegetables: principles, production and nutritive values. 2nd Edition. Chapman & Hall, New York, United States. 843 pp.
• Talekar, N.S. (Editor), 1992. Diamondback moth and other crucifer pests: Proceedings of the 2nd International Workshop, Tainan, Taiwan, 10-14 December 1990. AVRDC Publication 92-368. AVRDC, Tainan, Taiwan. 603 pp.
• Verkerk, R., 2002. Evaluation of glucosinolate levels throughout the production chain of Brassica vegetables, toward a novel predictive modelling approach. Thesis Wageningen University, Wageningen, Netherlands. 136 pp.
• Voorrips, R.E., 1996. Clubroot in the cole crops: the interaction between Plasmodiophora brassicae and Brassica oleracea. PhD thesis, Wageningen Agricultural University, Wageningen, Netherlands. 118 pp.
• Voorrips, R.E., Jongerius, M.C. & Kanne, H.J., 2003. Quantitative trait loci for clubroot resistance in Brassica oleracea. In: Nagata, T. & Tabata, S. (Editors). Brassicas and legumes. From genomestructure to breeding. Biotechnology in Agriculture and Forestry 52. Springer Verlag, Berlin, Germany. pp. 87–104.
• Walangululu, J.M. & Mushagalusa, G.N., 2000. The major pests of cabbage (Brassica oleracea var. capitata subs. sabauda) in Bukavu and around. Tropicultura 18(2): 55–57.
• Walters, T.W., Mutschler, M.A. & Earle, E.D., 1991. Protoplast fusion-derived Ogura male sterile cauliflower with cold tolerance. Plant Cell Reports 10(12): 624–628.
Sources of illustration
• van der Vossen, H.A.M., 1993. Brassica oleracea L. cv. groups White Headed Cabbage, Red Headed Cabbage, Savoy Headed Cabbage. In: Siemonsma, J.S. & Kasem Piluek (Editors). Plant Resources of South-East Asia No 8. Vegetables. Pudoc Scientific Publishers, Wageningen, Netherlands. pp. 117–121.
H.A.M. van der Vossen
Steenuil 18, 1606 CA Venhuizen, Netherlands
A.A. Seif
ICIPE, P.O. Box 30772, Nyago Stadium, Nairobi, Kenya
Based on PROSEA 8: ‘Vegetables’.

G.J.H. Grubben
Boeckweijdt Consult, Prins Hendriklaan 24, 1401 AT Bussum, Netherlands
O.A. Denton
National Horticultural Research Institute, P.M.B. 5432, Idi-Ishin, Ibadan, Nigeria
Associate editors
C.-M. Messiaen
Bat. B 3, Résidence La Guirlande, 75, rue de Fontcarrade, 34070 Montpellier, France
R.R. Schippers
De Boeier 7, 3742 GD Baarn, Netherlands
General editors
R.H.M.J. Lemmens
PROTA Network Office Europe, Wageningen University, P.O. Box 341, 6700 AH Wageningen, Netherlands
L.P.A. Oyen
PROTA Network Office Europe, Wageningen University, P.O. Box 341, 6700 AH Wageningen, Netherlands
Photo editor
E. Boer
PROTA Network Office Europe, Wageningen University, P.O. Box 341, 6700 AH Wageningen, Netherlands

Correct citation of this article:
van der Vossen, H.A.M. & Seif, A.A., 2004. Brassica oleracea L. (headed cabbage) [Internet] Record from PROTA4U. Grubben, G.J.H. & Denton, O.A. (Editors). PROTA (Plant Resources of Tropical Africa / Ressources végétales de l’Afrique tropicale), Wageningen, Netherlands. <>. Accessed .
1, plant habit; 2, head in longitudinal section.
Source: PROSEA

white cabbage

white cabbage, field