Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Subarctic Broccoli

Species name: Brassica oleracea

Common name: Broccoli

Location: Alaska

Last summer when I was in Alaska I took a roadtrip up to the Arctic Circle from Fairbanks. Along the way, the highway crosses the Yukon River and the van stopped at the welcome centre for a break. Outside the welcome centre is a vegetable garden, if you can believe it! I was definitely misinformed about the weather in the interior of Alaska when I arrived. Sure, I knew it would be light out all the time but I was grossly unprepared for just how light it really is. In July, it feels like it's 2:00 pm all day every day. Neglecting to bring a sleeping mask with me was probably the biggest mistake of the trip! The other thing I hadn't accounted for with the huge number of daylight hours that they have during the summer, is the extended growing season. Most of the time when you think of Alaska you think "cold and inhospitable" (at least, I did), not "perfect for agriculture during the summer." The weather there is actually perfect for growing crops that thrive in cooler weather (broccoli is no exception there!), and due to 24 hours of daylight during the summer their growing season is the equivalent of almost five months of ideal crop growth. Mind-boggling! When I was taking the train from Anchorage to Fairbanks, we went through Wasilla (Sarah Palin's hometown) and learned that they have an annual "Large Vegetable Fair" every fall, where farmers from all over compete for prizes for the largest vegetable in many different categories. The world's largest cabbage was grown just outside of Wasilla and weighed in at a massive 150 kg. That's a lot of coleslaw!

Broccoli is one of six vegetables that are all part of the same species: broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, kohlrabi, and kale. Humans have selected for various characteristics in each of these six vegetables which is why they look so different from each other. DNA sequencing about a decade ago showed that genetically, there wasn't actually much differentiation between these vegetables, just the turning on and off of specific genes. Broccoli and its brothers and sisters are native to the Northern Mediterranean (Italy, Greece, France).

Broccoli as a vegetable is packed with Vitamin C, fibre, selenium, beta-carotene, lutein, diindolylmethane, glucoraphanin and indole-3-carbinol. These last four chemicals are associated with anti-cancer, anti-viral and anti-bacterial properties, and glucoraphanin especially has been shown in small amounts to be a potent chemical that aids in DNA repair and blocks the growth of cancer cells. For this reason, broccoli and its extracts are currently being studied as a potential treatment or cure for cancer (as well as many other species in the genus Brassica). Something to keep in mind if you choose to consume broccoli for its heath benefits alone: the potency of these chemicals decreases with boiling; up to 30% with five minutes of cooking, 50% with ten minutes of cooking, and up to 75% with thirty minutes of cooking. Broccoli is one of the many vegetables best consumed raw or steamed (steaming and microwaving don't seem to have the same detrimental effects as boiling does)!