The Mother of Sprouts

Common name: Brussels sprout

Dear Readers, the Christmas and New Year issue of New Scientist is such a delight that I thought I’d share a few highlights with you over the next few days, after yesterday’s rather more pensive post. First up is the brussels sprout. Scientist Chris Pires has made it his mission to discover the ancestor of the plant, and this has led him to some very interesting places.

Brussels sprouts have the scientific name Brassica oleracea, but sadly so do fourteen other varieties of cabbage, including cauliflower, Savoy cabbage, kohl rabi and kale. So how did this diminutive little chap get his start? It was thought that the brussels sprout might have been first domesticated in the UK, but another theory pointed to the Mediterranean. After doing some genetic analysis, it turned out that the closest relative to these green Christmas ‘favourites’ (I use the word advisedly) was a weedy plant called Brassica cretica, which languishes on the sunny shores of the Aegean.

This ties up with the first recorded mention of the Brussels sprout, in Greek literature from about 2500 years ago. The botanist Theophrastus suggested using the vegetable to offset the results of too much alcohol, something which is apparently still believed in Southern Italy to this day. I have no idea if you eat the sprouts before or after the intoxicating event, but either could, I fear, lead to disaster.

To my delight, it appears that Greek legend has it that cabbages sprang up where Zeus’s sweat fell to the ground.

Still, the theory about the Aegean weedy cabbage relative remains to be proven because apparently some of the Brassica cretica that the scientists found could themselves be feral – in a dry, hostile environment I’m sure people would eat every plant that poked its head up and that wasn’t actively toxic, so I imagine there have been endless crossbreeding between the species, both natural and encouraged by people. Will we ever get to the bottom of the heredity of the Brussels sprout? Who knows. I am just holding onto the vision of Zeus raising his arms to heaven as a whole shower of round green cabbages cascades out of his armpits.

You can read the whole article here.

Photo from New Scientist, by Maia Gatlin

And with apologies in advance for the scatological subject of the next brief item, it appears that artificial intelligence can detect diarrhoea with up to 98% accuracy if you place an AI listening device in a toilet. It’s thought that this might be able to track outbreaks of diseases like cholera. It appears that some poor human had to listen to hundreds of recordings in order to work out if there was a problem with someone’s defecation or not, so that the AI could ‘learn’. Whenever I’m fed up at work, I’m going to remember that things could be worse.

You can read the whole article here, if you have the stomach for it.

2 thoughts on “The Mother of Sprouts

  1. Anne

    I don’t think we are in any doubt when we suffer from diarrhoea (one of the most difficult words to spell 🙂 ). I have often wondered why Brussels sprouts are considered such a delicacy that it proudly makes its way onto the menus of northern hemisphere Christmas feasts.


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