Do Brussels sprouts need pollination?

Some questions surprise me because they reappear so frequently, but what is it with Brussels sprouts? For decades I’ve heard nothing about Brussels sprouts, but suddenly every third visitor wants to know how to pollinate them. I do not understand.

I endure Brussels sprouts mostly because my husband likes them and they are good for me. But I will eat them only fresh off the stalk. A Brussels sprout that is frozen or otherwise tampered with goes through a mystical transformation that makes it truly vile. It’s not the flavor so much as the texture—a mouthful of bland green mush—that really gets to me. Shiver.

But if you are the type of person that wants to ensure the survival of said mush, you should know that Brussels sprouts can be pollinated by both honey bees and native bees. The plant belongs to the Brassicaceae family that includes cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, kale, collard greens, and kohlrabi. The odd thing is that Brussels sprouts, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, kale, savoy, and Chinese kale are all in the same species, Brassica oleracea—they are merely different cultivars (cultivated varieties).

This means that when growing the plants for seed, you must keep the different cultivars separated from each other because they can readily cross-pollinate. For example, a broccoli might cross with a Brussels sprout and yield yet another smelly cabbagy thing to fester in our produce drawers. The amount of separation should be at least a mile because, as you know, honey bees are completely willing to span that distance.

People unfamiliar with plant propagation will often say they buy seeds, grow a sprout (or a carrot or a turnip), and never see a flower. So who needs pollination? Good question except they are forgetting that the seed wasn’t manufactured by Home Depot. They were grown by a farmer who maintained the plants until they flowered. Then the honey bees were brought in to do their thing. What a system.

So the short answer is “yes,” Brussels sprouts need pollination. Without pollination there is no seed. And without the seed we would have no more Brussels sprouts . . . perhaps not such a bad thing after all.

Rusty
HoneyBeeSuite

Brussels_sprout_closeup
Fresh Brussels sprouts are fine, but don’t try anything funny. Wikimedia Commons photo by Eric Hunt.

Confidential to “Typo Police”: Thanks. Indeed I have only one husband.

Comments

HB
Reply

First, I did not know that “brussel sprouts” s/b be “Brussels sprouts.” Second, I love Brussels sprouts! I do prefer them to be fresh, though. I steam them just ’til tender, and then I regress to being a five year old and eat them by peeling off the leaves, one at a time, until I get to the center. It’s too crinkly to peel, so it just gets eaten before it gets cold. Cold Brussels sprouts are blechy. Although, even those are not so bad, sliced and thrown on a salad.

Rusty
Reply

Well, the spelling is according to the sources I used. Apparently they are named after the city, hence the capital letter and the final s. I am accustomed to the fresh ones and like them sliced and stir-fried, but I really dislike the frozen variety. I don’t know if I’m brave enough to eat a cold one. Maybe I’ll try the salad thing.

HB
Reply

Kinda goes without saying, but don’t forget the bacon.

David
Reply

This might be a stretch but I think the confusion is that Brussels Sprouts appear on the stalk as if each one were the result of successful pollination. And people unfamiliar with plant propagation would expect to see flower first before picking something from a tree, bush, etc., not even thinking that Brussels sprouts are not seeds nor do they contain them.

Rusty
Reply

David,

Not a stretch at all but a very plausible explanation. I would never have thought of it.

A B Farmer
Reply

Now hold on here just a Brussels sprout picking minute. The part of the Brussels sprout that we eat is a leaf, not a seed pod or a fruit. Therefore no pollination is needed to grow a Brussels sprout leaf. So your answer is no, Brussels sprouts do not need to be pollinated to make the little green globes of goodness that we eat.

If you are speaking about producing Brussels sprout seeds to plant in order to produce more Brussels sprout leaf growing plants? In that case Brussels sprouts are members of the cabbage family, and plants in the cabbage family have a perfect flower (meaning each flower contains all the male and all the female parts needed for fertilization) and therefore Brussels sprouts are self fertile. So once again no insect help is needed to pollinate Brussels sprouts.

So yes Brussels sprouts do need pollination, but they are more than capable of doing the entire job themselves, no honey bees are ever needed to produce Brussels sprouts. Now wasn’t that easy?

Rusty
Reply

Dear Farmer,

Of course the sprout part has no seeds. In my post I said if we want to perpetuate the existence of Brussels sprouts we need seeds to do it. To get the sprouts, you first need to plant a seed. And the seeds come as a result of sexual reproduction.

Brussels sprouts are self-infertile; they are dependent on insect pollination as mentioned in the following references. The last one describes the mechanism of self-infertility in Brassica, if you are so inclined.

Furthermore, it does not follow that perfect flowers (those with both male and female parts) are self-fertile. Some are; many are not. The Brassicas are good examples of those that are not self fertile.

It was easy all right. All references I could find insist that Brassica need insect pollination for seed set.

From the Vegetable Seed Saving Handbook: Brussels sprouts are mostly self-infertile.

From http://homeguides.sfgate.com: Insects are needed to carry pollen from one Brussels sprouts plant to another; they are self-incompatible.

From http://www.liseed.org: Kale, Collards, Savoy, Brussels Sprouts . . . because of self- incompatibility, it is useful to have many plants of the cultivar that you wish to save pure seed of. Many seed-savers see the need to preserve a large enough gene pool for the variety, at least a dozen plants.

And this article from Wikipedia explains how the self-incompatability mechanisms in all the Brassica works:

The SI (Self-Incompatability) mechanism in Brassica:

As previously mentioned, the SI phenotype of the pollen is determined by the diploid genotype of the anther. In Brassica, the pollen coat, derived from the anther’s tapetum tissue, carries the translation products of the two S alleles. These are small, cysteine-rich proteins. The male determinant is termed SCR or SP11, and is expressed in the anther tapetum as well as in the microspore and pollen (i.e. sporophytically).[22][23] There are possibly up to 100 polymorphs of the S-haplotype in Brassica, and within these there is a dominance hierarchy.

The female determinant of the SI response in Brassica, is a transmembrane protein termed SRK, which has an intracellular kinase domain, and a variable extracellular domain.[24][25] SRK is expressed in the stigma, and probably functions as a receptor for the SCR/SP11 protein in the pollen coat. Another stigmatic protein, termed SLG, is highly similar in sequence to the SRK protein, and seems to function as a co-receptor for the male determinant, amplifying the SI response.[26]

The interaction between the SRK and SCR/SP11 proteins results in autophosphorylation of the intracellular kinase domain of SRK,[27][28] and a signal is transmitted into the papilla cell of the stigma. Another protein essential for the SI response is MLPK, a serine-threonine kinase, which is anchored to the plasma membrane from its intracellular side.[29] The downstream cellular and molecular events, leading eventually to pollen inhibition, are poorly described.

Kitty Cunningham
Reply

Another way you might like them is cut in halves and roasted with coconut oil

Gretchen
Reply

Yes, it seems that Brussels sprouts have become the new eco-green-gourmet vegetable. I’ve never been much for Brussels sprouts, but hear the homegrown ones are great — may have to try growing some this year.

Regardless of pollination needs, bees are crazy for Brassicas so I always let mine go to seed… broccoli in the fall, kale and turnips in the spring. They make masses of bee-tasty blooms at opportune times of the year.

Rusty
Reply

Gretchen,

I must be living under a stone because I had no idea Brussels sprouts were suddenly so popular. I just noticed that every day I was getting questions about them. Very strange. I actually grew them for a couple of years and the fresh ones aren’t bad. I have bad memories of the ones my mom used to serve–the frozen type–so that memory always sticks with me.

By the way, glad to hear from you . . . I haven’t in a while.

Gretchen
Reply

It’s good to be back! I lost both of my colonies last summer, which was fairly traumatic. I took a 2 season hiatus from beekeeping, and have 2 nucs arriving this week, so am getting back in the saddle, humbler and wiser.

ScoobyDoBee
Reply

I knew there was a reason I liked you! Brussels sprouts – ew! Ok, I am intrigued, however, that they Might be good fresh. May have to give them a try… when I’m feeling especially adventuresome. I’d love to see them blooming! Which, speaking of those kinds of things, I let my rapini broccoli go to seed – wow, a single plant is huge and CoVeRed with blooms! My bees are thrilled with this early bloomer. Come fall, I’m going to plant a row just for the bees!

JoeC
Reply

Don’t mess with Rusty…. I haven’t seen many of those genetics terms for years since Genetics classes in 1977. Good job!

Rusty
Reply

:) That’s a long time ago; we may have been in Genetics class together!

Audrey
Reply

As a child I was punished for not eating the disgusting, dreaded brussel’s sprouts so on principal, as a grown up, I shouldn’t eat them. However, as a grown up, I discovered they are delicious. Try cutting them in half, rub with oil and grill them sealed in foil with a splash of maple syrup. My mother didn’t make them like this.

Rusty
Reply

Audrey,

That actually sounds good. I will try it, next time I run across a sprout.

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