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The Fascinating History of Orange Cauliflower

20170814A Heather Kennedy, Flickr
Orange cauliflower. Photo: Heather Kennedy, Flickr

You’ve probably seen one in the supermarket or a public market, although you may have hesitated to try it: bright orange cauliflower (Brassica oleracea botrytis). And no, it was not tinted with vegetable dye nor is it a GMO: orange is its true color. And its history is quite fascinating.

A Discovery That Led to Plenty of Research!

In 1970, a market gardener from Holland Marsh, Ontario, noticed, among his rows of white cauliflowers, a plant that was unlike any other, with a small but bright orange head. Rather than destroy it, he allowed it to bloom and produce seeds … and some of these seeds ended up at the New York State Agricultural Station in Geneva, New York, part of Cornell University.

That’s where researcher Dr. Michael H. Dickson, a crucifer specialist, began experimenting with this odd cauliflower. He crossed and recrossed this unique variety with standard size white cauliflowers to improve both its dimensions and taste while enhancing its orange coloration.

At the same, he studied orange cauliflower and discovered that its odd coloration was due to a mutation that increased the quantity of beta carotene, a precursor of vitamin A, that it produced. (It’s also beta carotene that gives carrots their orange coloration.) So, with 25% more beta carotene than a white cauliflower and just as many minerals and other vitamins (calcium, magnesium, iron and vitamins B, C, E and K, among others), orange cauliflower is also better for your health.

Dr. Dickson’s team introduced orange cauliflower in 1981 … without much success. The public didn’t seem ready to accept such an unusually colored vegetable. Still, a few growers did pick it up and, over time, orange cauliflower has gradually entered the mainstream, at least to the point where it’s occasionally seen in regular supermarkets and farmers’ markets.

The Situation Today

20170814 Sunset, West Coast Seeds
‘Sunset’ cauliflower. Photo: West Coast Seeds

Today, there are several orange cauliflower cultivars, the best known probably being ‘Cheddar’, ‘Orange Burst’ and ‘Orange Bouquet’. But despite a name like ‘Cheddar’, which seems to evoke a cheesy taste, orange cauliflowers have about the same taste as a white cauliflower and can be used in exactly the same recipes, although some say they have a creamier texture.

20170814C SuperFoodsRx
The color range of modern cauliflower. Photo: SuperFoodsRx

Can you grow orange cauliflower yourself? Of course! They are no more complicated to grow from seed than white cauliflower. Moreover, you can also add to your cauliflower repertoire purple cauliflower (rich in anthocyanin, an antioxidant) and green cauliflower. Seeds of colorful cauliflower are available from many seed companies.

So, give yourself a challenge next summer: plant colored cauliflower in your vegetable garden … and surprise your family with more colorful—and healthier!—meals.20170814A Heather Kennedy, Flickr

Garden writer and blogger, author of 65 gardening books, lecturer and communicator, the Laidback Gardener, Larry Hodgson, passed away in October 2022. Known for his great generosity, his thoroughness and his sense of humor, he reached several generations of amateur and professional gardeners over his 40-year career. Thanks to his son, Mathieu Hodgson, and a team of contributors, will continue its mission of demystifying gardening and making it more accessible to all.

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