One Mustard, Many Flavors


What do kale, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussel sprouts, and cabbage have in common? They are all different cultivars of the same species!

Wild cabbage (Brassica oleracea) is native to coastal parts of southern and western Europe. In its native habitat, wild cabbage is very tolerant of salty, limey soils but not so tolerant of competition. Because of this, it tends to grow mainly on limestone sea cliffs where few other plants can dig their roots in.

Despite their popularity as delicious, healthy vegetables, as well as their long history of cultivation, there is scant record of this plant before Greek and Roman times. Some feel that this is one of the oldest plants in cultivation. Along with the countless number of edible cultivars, the wild form of Brassica oleracea can be found growing throughout the world, no doubt thanks to its popularity among humans.

I am always amazed by how little we know about crop wild relatives. Despite the popularity of its many agricultural cultivars, relatively little attention has been paid to B. oleracea in the wild. What we do know is that at least two subspecies have been identified - B. oleracea ssp. bourgeaui and B. oleracea L. ssp. oleracea. As far as anyone can tell, subspecies 'oleracea' is the most wide spread in its distribution whereas subspecies 'bourgeaui'  is only known from the Canary Islands. 


B. oleracea's long history with humans confuses matters quite a bit. Because it has been cultivated for thousands of years, identifying which populations represent wild individuals and which represent ancient introductions is exceedingly difficult. Such investigations are made all the more difficult by a lack of funding for the kind of research that would be needed to elucidate some of these mysteries. We know so little about wild B. oleracea that the IUCN considers is a species to be "data deficient."

It seems to appreciate cool, moist areas and will sometimes escape from cultivation if conditions are right, thus leading to the confusion mentioned above. It is amazing to look at this plant and ponder all the ways in which humans have selectively bred it into the myriad shapes, sizes, and flavors we know and love (or hate) today! However, we must pay more attention to the wild progenitors of our favorite crops. They harbor much needed genetic diversity as well as clues to how these plants are going to fare as our climates continue to change.

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Evolving For City Life

Urban environments pose unique challenges to any plant. Cities are generally warmer, have significantly higher CO2 levels, and experience altered levels of disturbance and precipitation patterns than do rural areas nearby. Still, many plants have taken to these concrete jungles, popping up wherever they can eke out an existence. Although we are not reinventing ecological principals in urban areas, they nonetheless present distinct selective pressures on every living thing within their jurisdiction. Evidence now suggests that urban environments are actually shaping the evolution of at least some plant species. 

Motivated by a desire to better understand how urban conditions are influencing evolution, a team of researchers based out of the University of Minnesota decided to take a closer look at a common mustard called Virginia pepperweed (Lepidium virginicum). This hardy little annual is at home wherever disturbance occurs. As such, it can be found throughout most of North America and beyond. Because it self pollinates readily, researchers were able to quantify phenotypic differences between populations growing in dense urban centers and compare them to those growing in more rural areas.

They collected seeds from numerous urban and rural populations and grew them together in a greenhouse experiment. By exposing each population to the same conditions in the greenhouse, the team were able to tease out the true phenotypic differences between these populations. 

What their data revealed were distinct differences between urban and rural populations. For starters, urban plants had larger rosettes but fewer leaves. They also bolted sooner than rural plants but then exhibited a much longer period of time between bolting and flowers. Previous studies have shown that the inflorescence of related species "accounted for 55% of a plants photosynthetic activity but only 25% of water loss." Coupled with the reduction in the number of leaves, these results suggest that urban plants are maximizing photosynthesis under drier conditions. 

Another interesting difference is that urban plants produced far more seed than their rural counterparts. This very well may be due to the fact that urban plants tended to be larger. This could also be due to reduced herbivory in urban environments, though such pressures may vary from city to city. Due to the urban heat island effect, it is likely that this could be a result of more stable temperature conditions than those experienced by their rural counterparts. Taken together, these results show that there is indeed selection for traits that allow plants to not only survive but thrive in urban environments.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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