What you see: Something yellow and maybe leafy or sprouty growing inside your red cabbage.
What it is: The cabbage is bolting! The yellow bits are the cabbage’s attempt to flower.
Eat or toss: Eat! Nothing wrong here. But don’t wait too long!
Are those yellow sprouts or leaves in your cabbage?!?
A cabbage is a supersized take on what botanists call a “terminal bud” or an “apical bud.” Both terms describe the bud you find at the end of the stem, say at the end of a twig on a cherry tree (buds along the twig are called “lateral buds”), or at the top of a not-yet-blossomed rose stem. They’re all on their way to becoming flowers.
Through breeding and cultivation, the comparatively dainty terminal buds on wild cabbage have become the giant, softball-sized spheres that we farm for kimchi, sauerkraut, salads, stir fries and other dishes today.
Normally, we harvest cabbages before they can move past the “bud” stage and bust out some petals. But left to its own devices, a cabbage will still try to flower.
That’s what Jim Myers, a professor of vegetable breeding and genetics at Oregon State University, believes is happening in the red cabbages pictured here. The cabbages are undergoing a flowering process called “bolting.”
“If the leaves were peeled back, you would see that the tip of the core was elongating into a set of flower stalks,” he wrote in an email.
The yellow and light greenish bits squeezed between the red cabbage leaves are probably the beginnings of flowers. Cabbages have been so shaped by human design that their flowers can get stuck inside their tightly packed leaves.
“Because of the compact apical bud, the flower stalks have a difficult time breaking free and a cabbage plant left unaided may not be able to complete the process,” Myers wrote.
Bolting doesn’t mean a red cabbage is unfit for eating
Despite the cabbage’s flowering struggles, your food prep can proceed as planned because all this botanical activity will not diminish the immediate eating quality of the cabbage. In fact, Myers wrote to me, the flower buds and stems start out as very sweet and succulent.
Just don’t wait too long; Myers noted that the stems will get woody and bitter over time.
Bolting is also referred to as “going to seed” because it “redistributes a plant’s energy away from the leaves and roots to instead produce seeds and a flowering stem,” according to MasterClass, which offers courses in gardening. Bolting, according to the organization, signals the end of new leaf growth. It can be brought on by stress and can cause bitter flavors. But, as Myers noted, in these cabbages there’s a nice window where you’ll get those sweet notes.
How do cabbages reproduce if they can’t flower?
So, yes, we’ve bred cabbages to the point where their attempts to flower are stymied by their own nutrient-dense leaves. But, we humans are also there to help them along. Myers explains:
“Commercial seed producers will cut the heads just before bolting to allow the flower stalk to elongate about the head. Then bees take care of the rest of the process.”
New Scientist offered this analysis of human-cabbage relationship:
“Cabbages and humans have co-evolved…the cabbage’s enlarged terminal bud is highly adaptive, because it manipulates us into being its hands and brain.”
- Jim Myers. Professor, Vegetable Breeding and Genetics. Oregon State University. College of Agricultural Sciences. Department of Horticulture.
- The extraordinary diversity of Brassica oleracea. The Botanist in the Kitchen. Jeanne L. D. Osnas, PhD. Nov. 5, 2012.
- Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “cabbage”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 25 May. 2021. Accessed 2 May 2022.
- Why do cabbages exist when their shape prevents photosynthesis? New Scientist. January 26, 2021.
- 6 Ways to Prevent Vegetables From Bolting. MasterClass staff. Last updated: Nov 8, 2020.