Always a side dish, never an entrée, cabbage is that cruciferous vegetable enjoyed as sauerkraut, coleslaw, or boiled with corned beef and potatoes on St. Patty’s Day. Even when the main dish is named after it, as in “stuffed cabbage,” the reality is it’s filled with meat and cooked in tomato sauce until it’s unrecognizable.


PHOTO COURTESY OF DIEGO MEDRANO/SXC.HU.

Despite the fact that cabbage is a good source of vitamins A, C and E, it lacks the glamour of high-glucosinolate broccoli, nutrient-dense kale and multihued cauliflowers or its more exotic cruciferous cousins. As research into its relatives has increased, funding for cabbage research in the U.S. has declined over the past several years. New varieties emerging on the markets generally were developed in Europe or East Asia.

Even in New York, the country’s top producer of cabbage, research has been limited. Phil Griffiths, associate professor and vegetable breeder at Cornell University’s USDA Geneva research station, says his most recent cabbage breeding program lost the majority of its funding after a short time. “There’s not enough support to work on ‘unglamorous blue-collar crops’ in a major way,” he reports. ” We have a reasonable-sized project, breeding for resistance to black rot, but minimal funding.”

The primary disease of cabbage worldwide, black rot is a bacterial disease that causes large yield losses throughout the world. Despite limited funding and time, Griffiths has been able to combine resistance from different backgrounds from New York and Wisconsin to enhance the level of black rot resistance. The resulting cultivars are now in the hands of large-scale commercial seed companies.

He says today’s cabbage cultivars are much improved over those of 25 to 30 years ago, because a high level of black rot resistance has been incorporated. However, New York growers, especially those trying to beat the season or grow the smaller, dense heads favored for fresh market sales, continue to struggle with thrips.

In the Southeast, cabbage growers fight with Fusarium yellows and insect pests, as well as extreme heat. At North Carolina State University’s Plants for Human Health Institute N.C. Research Campus in Kannapolis, Dr. Allan Brown intends to develop cabbage cultivars that tolerate these biotic and abiotic stresses. He’s hoping that a recent donation of cabbage germplasm from Monsanto will provide the boon cabbage needs to become an economically viable crop in the Southeast.

The germplasm was developed as part of an active breeding program that originated with Asgrow seeds about 10 years ago. Since then, Asgrow became part of Seminis, Seminis became part of Monsanto, and Monsanto decided they didn’t want to be involved with cabbage. Brown says this was the last large-scale American cabbage-breeding program. Despite the corporate affiliation, the germplasm has not been transgenically modified, but only bred via conventional means.

In June, Brown rented a truck and drove the collection of germplasm from Wisconsin to North Carolina. He has been evaluating it ever since and hopes to begin trials in spring 2012.

In evaluations, Brown and his team will look at how each plant does in each of the state’s two growing environments: the coastal plains and the mountains. “We have two pretty distinct environments, and we like to see how well they do in each location,” he says.

Will cabbage ever become a crop that can compete with its cousins economically? Brown says there’s still quite a significant market in the U.S. for cabbage, and it’s not really being addressed. “Cabbage has been neglected in the U.S., so to have an active cabbage program in the Southeast is pretty exciting for growers.” Cabbage growers in the Southeast can expect to hear from Brown and his staff. They intend to reach out to growers soon to assess their needs. Brown expects that farmers will benefit from the direct connection to people who are actively developing materials they can utilize.

The author is a freelance writer based in Massachusetts and a monthly contributor to Growing.