Mystery Plant! #745

John Nelson

Posted 10/18/23

By John Nelson

(Photo by John Nelson.)

They are Brussels sprouts, obviously…but what the heck are they actually? Today, you learn.

You also learn that Brussels sprouts and cooked carrots were my most hated foods, as a kid. I believe that I can speak for many thousands of former children who detested Brussels sprouts at dinner, and would have been chided by Mom for not giving them a try. Ugh. In fact, I expect that if you took some sort of statistically significant poll, we would find that Brussels sprouts are considered by most Americans to be one of the most awfullest vegetables there is.

Flash forward to my adulthood. I have changed over the years (have you?) and I now find Brussels sprouts, properly cooked, to be absolutely delicious, and a culinary treat. (I still hate eating cooked carrots, however.)

These things are actually buds of a variety of the very same wild plant species which gives us the common everyday cabbage. Moreover, that very same species, from its ancestral wild form, has developed quite a number of other distinctive varieties. Think kale, cauliflower, kohlrabi, and collard greens…all derived from one species. It’s as though this particular wild plant has evolved a lot of different forms, in much the same way that all dog varieties are the same species.

Brussels sprouts belong to the mustard family (Brassicaceae). This family has been known since antiquity as an important food source, and in fact, it is said that all of the members of this family are edible, and beyond that, quite nutritious, featuring vitamins, antioxidants, and in several, it is thought, offering anti-tumor activity. What accounts for the sharp flavor of many of these plants is a variety of “mustard oils,” a series of sulfur-bearing compounds, which in nature are useful for dissuading attack by insects.

For those of you who remain dubious, I have developed a recipe for creamy Brussels sprouts soup. Here goes:

Take about a pound and a half of fresh Brussels sprouts. Rinse ’em off, and slice each one in half. In a baking pan, roast until tender (it doesn’t take long) after a good slather of olive oil or melted butter (or both), salt and pepper, along with four or five sliced shallots. The whole assemblage should be rather damp and gooey when done. Then, spoon it all into a blender, and add some torn bread (a baguette is useful here) and then enough chicken stock (or vegetable if you wish…that’s what they say on the cooking shows) to make it start looking right, along with a soupçon (love that word!) of vinegar, and a bit more salt. Turn that sucker on and blend til it’s nice and smooth, or to your desired consistency. Pour at all into a saucepan and turn it on LOW. Let it get warm, just simmering, and add a robust splash of heavy cream. Ladle it into bowls or whatever, and top with a few sprinkles of chopped chives. Serve it warm. Yum. Just in time for autumn. 

[Answer: “Brussels sprouts”, Brassica oleracea]

John Nelson is the retired curator of the Herbarium at the University of South Carolina, in the Department of Biological Sciences. As a public service, the Herbarium offers free plant identifications. For more information, visit or email

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