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Sunday, June 9, 2013

The Astonishing Secret Lives of Vegetables

Exciting things happen when you go undercover. No, I’m not talking about movies like Donnie Brasco and cops assimilating into the Mafia for information. I’m talking about something even more heart-pounding and mysterious: what happens under the leaves and beneath the dirt in gardens.

Plants amaze me.  There is no Mensa group for plants, but they are quite smart. They know the season, date and time and what they need to do, all without consulting an Iphone.

Science was never my favorite subject. I liked writing in English class and painting in art class. But now that I am fascinated by plants and gardens, my appreciation for science is blooming. I’m enchanted by the ways of plants. They need so little help from me—some water, maybe some coffee grounds added to the soil—and they produce bright flowers and beautiful vegetables. And sometimes, surprises.

You never know what is happening underground. Plants have unexpected gifts for us beyond what we imagine. Take the carrot I saw in the grocery store yesterday. I’ve never seen one like this. I love it! 
It’s fascinating. Why did it split? (Online I learned that this happens if the growing carrot bumps into a stone or a clod of dirt. It simply grows around it. In this case, it hedged its bets and grew in two directions!)

Years ago, before I joined the community garden, I had an exciting moment when I unwrapped a corn cob from its husk. I’d witnessed something I didn’t know was possible: corn twins! One was much smaller than the other but they shared the same husk. Why and how did this happen? The only information I found online suggested that when a corn stalk grows an extra limb, two joined cobs of corn may grow.

Several weeks ago at a farmers market I came across something I hadn’t seen before. I stopped in my tracks and turned, wide-eyed, to the vendor, full of questions about the green sculpture in front of me that apparently doubled as food. Romanesco Brassica, she informed me, was a variety of cauliflower. Maybe I’d like cauliflower more if it looked this exciting!


Its bright shape was the color of Kermit the frog, with intricately detailed cones that reminded me of something you’d find underwater: bumpy barnacles, the coil of nautilus shells and the defined points of conch shells. It turns out that Romanesco is made up of buds made up of a series of smaller buds, growing in a perfect spiral. This plant shares the same growth pattern as the nautilus shell: growing at a constant rate so that the spiral that is formed grows without changing its shape. (Geometric progression, for anyone who loves math terms!) Its spiral growth pattern reminds me of a pinecone’s shape as well as the structure of certain succulents. Apparently there are numerous natural creations that grow this way. Maybe kids would be more excited about eating their veggies and doing their math if lessons included captivating visuals like the Romanesco!

There you have it. We thought we knew a few things about vegetables, but there are many new facets of the plant world to discover. The amazing world of growing things: there are surprises around every corner, and under every leaf. You never know when a plant has a trick up its sleeve (corn husk).



  1. I was delighted to find the fractal broccoli when I was at the produce co a few years back. Took one to a dinner and wowed folks with it. Tastes like the perfect cross between cauliflower and broccoli. Steam and butter! It's a shame to eat such a marvelous thing. Short of slashing across it to get smaller pieces, it was hard to unpack it like you might with a head of broccoli. Fascinating bit of food, for sure.

  2. Oh yeah... In Europe (might have been France) there has been a longstanding rule or some kind of standard that kept the "defective" veggies off the racks in markets. They didn't want to display such variations and I think I recall they threw them out. Not sure if that's still a common thing anymore or if they've gotten hip to the oddly shaped produce. A curious person such as yourself might look into it and follow up here :-)