Did you notice the chartreuse, psychedelic spines of Romanesco broccoli during its very short season at the farmers market? If you looked closely, you would have seen just how remarkable this vegetable really is. Like a snowflake, this broccoli-cauliflower hybrid is a mathematical wonder: a natural fractal.
Fractals are figures comprised of parts with the same visual and statistical characteristics as their whole. In other words, each floret of a Romanesco is a smaller version of the larger spine on which it grows.
Part of the cruciferous family, Romanesco tastes like a mild, nuttier version of cauliflower. The edible flower is eaten both raw and cooked, and is excellent roasted.
Romanesco didn’t arrive in the U.S. until the beginning of the 20th century, but it is thought to have originated in the Lazio region of Italy as early as the 15th century. (Rome, from which the plant gets its name, is the capital of Lazio.) The logarithmic spiraling allows for buds to be efficiently arranged throughout the flower, which, in turn, yields more seeds than a typical plant of the same size. According to Kenyon College Associate Professor of Biology Dr. Drew Kerkhoff, the plant’s naturally occuring pattern has likely been reinforced by human selection over the centuries.
“I think it’s an amazing thing that humans interacting with plant genes can make something both mathematical and beautiful,” says Kerkhoff. “I find that kind of mind-blowing.”
Photo: Bon Appetit / Alamy.