Broccoli’s tree-like florets make it easy to recognize. However, many other vegetables grow clusters of tiny edible flower buds, so it can be tricky to know whether a floret-bearing plant truly is broccoli. Keep scrolling to discover the top plants resembling broccoli and how to tell they’re lookalikes.
The broccoli loved (or loathed) today started as wild cabbage more than 10 000 years ago. Over time, innovative farmers tamed wild cabbage and bred the familiar broccoli plant. They also bred broccoli’s relatives, cauliflower, cabbage, kale, and kohlrabi. These plants are all in the mustard family and are botanically classified as Brassica oleracea.
Broccoli’s identifying features are its thick green stalk, many green stems, and tightly packed bunches of deep-green-and-blue-tinged or purple flower buds. If allowed to bloom, these buds turn into inedible little 4-petaled yellow flowers. Broccoli also has large waxy bluish-green leaves with wavy edges.
The whole broccoli plant (stalk, stems, leaves, and closed buds) can be eaten raw or cooked. It has a sharp aroma and earthy, grassy-ish, bitter-sweet taste, especially when raw. The aroma and flavor are caused by compounds that give broccoli health benefits like protection against cancer.
Broccoli’s slightly bitter taste and strong smell don’t seem to put off veggie lovers, as it’s 1 of the most popular vegetables worldwide, and Americans each eat over 4 pounds of it a year.
Several other plants share broccoli’s features. Some are broccoli’s relatives, some are hybrids, and some are in different families.
These are the plants most often mistaken for broccoli and signs that they aren’t what they appear to be.
1. Broccolini (Brassica Oleracea)
Despite its name and appearance, broccolini isn’t baby broccoli. It’s a mix of broccoli and gai lan (Chinese broccoli), created in Japan in 1993. This broccoli hybrid is still stirring up excitement in gourmet circles decades later, as it’s said to combine the best in broccoli and gai lan.
Broccolini has broccoli’s florets of green buds. The difference is that broccolini’s florets are smaller and more loosely packed. Broccolini’s leaves are also smaller. And its stems and branches are thinner and longer, thanks to gai lan’s genetic material.
Broccolini tastes sweeter and milder than broccoli, with a hint of asparagus. Its skinnier stems are more tender than broccoli’s tough stems. Broccolini doesn’t have broccoli’s crunchy texture when raw and is most often eaten cooked.
Another difference is that broccolini’s stalk is removed when the plant matures to encourage its floret-crowned stems to flourish. Broccoli’s stalk is left untouched as the plant grows and is eaten after harvested.
Broccolini contains similar nutrients to broccoli, including fiber, protein, vitamins, and minerals. It also has broccoli’s special compound that helps keep cancer away. So, broccolini might measure up to the hype of being a sweeter, tenderer version of broccoli with similar health benefits.
2. Broccoli Rabe (Brassica Rapa)
Broccoli rabe looks like the offspring of broccoli and a leafy green like kale. It has long stems and a few little florets resembling broccoli’s peeking out from under many leaves. Broccoli rabe’s appearance is deceiving, as it’s not an ingenious broccoli-kale mix but a vegetable in its own right.
This leafy vegetable with broccoli-like florets is related to the turnip and is often grouped with bitter greens like Chinese cabbage shoots. It’s a much-loved veggie in Italy, where it’s combined with olive oil, garlic, chilis, anchovies, and breadcrumbs to make pasta dishes like Orecchiette con le Cime di Rapa.
Although broccoli rabe’s florets are small, loose, and sparse, they’re the main feature that makes people wonder, “Is this broccoli?”. But that’s not the only thing broccoli rabe and broccoli have in common. Both vegetables are nutrient-dense and contain disease-fighting compounds.
On the other hand, broccoli rabe and broccoli have several differences. At a glance, leafiness, long stems, and smaller florets are the major features that set broccoli rabe apart from broccoli. At a bite, broccoli rabe and broccoli taste earthy and slightly bitter, but broccoli rabe’s bitterness is more intense.
Another difference is that broccoli is just as likely to be sliced up and added raw to salads as it is to be cooked. In contrast, broccoli rabe tends to only be eaten cooked. Some chefs even recommend blanching broccoli rabe in salted water before cooking it to lessen the bitterness.
3. Romanesco (Brassica Oleracea)
Only a trained eye can tell romanesco and broccoli apart while growing, as their large bluish-green leaves have an undeniable likeness. However, as they mature, the vegetables start developing distinctive features.
While both veggies produce florets, romanesco’s florets stand out because of their attention-grabbing shape and color. Contrasting with broccoli’s dark green rounded florets, romanesco’s are light green and spiky. Romanesco heads also get bigger than broccoli’s, weighing up to 5 pounds each.
Like broccoli, romanesco’s stalk, stems, leaves, and florets can be eaten raw or cooked. Though it tastes sweeter, milder, and nuttier, with a touch of spice. Also, its texture is more cauliflower- than broccoli-like.
Romanesco is filled with goodness like its lookalike, including those protective compounds that make broccoli a must-eat vegetable.
4. Cauliflower (Brassica Oleracea)
Cauliflower might not be green, but that doesn’t stop it from being a broccoli lookalike. The two plants look especially alike when young before producing florets. Actually, cauliflower and broccoli seedlings are almost identical, except that broccoli’s leaves are more jagged.
As the plants grow, the most obvious difference is that cauliflower’s leaves are wider and darker than broccoli’s. More differences appear when the plants produce florets (besides the florets’ colors).
Cauliflower’s florets have tiny buds so close together that they look like they merge into a solid mass. In contrast, broccoli has looser florets made up of bigger buds. Broccoli plants’ height and width are usually the same, while cauliflowers stretch out widthways more than upwards.
Broccoli and cauliflower have been eaten for centuries (cauliflower since the 15th century and broccoli since the 16th century), and today, they are the top 2 brassica vegetables filling people’s plates and tummies.
Both vegetables work well in raw and cooked dishes. However, cauliflower is more versatile, transforming into anything from a pizza base to a rice or mashed potato substitute. Cauliflower tastes mild, sweetish, and nutty, while broccoli is peppery and earthy.
Broccoli and cauliflower both have impressive nutrient profiles. Broccoli has a slight advantage, though, as it has more protein, calcium, and iron than cauliflower. It also contains the eye-health-boosting antioxidants lutein and zeaxanthin, which cauliflower lacks.
5. Broccoflower (Brassica Oleracea)
Broccoflower sounds and looks like a fusion of broccoli and cauliflower. And that’s just what it is!
Take cauliflower’s shape and broccoli’s color, and you get a bumpy head of snugly packed light green florets. Or broccoflower.
This trendy hybrid vegetable was created in Holland and got its catchy name when it started being sold in the US in the late 80s. Exotic-vegetable fans would hunt down broccoflower decades ago when it was rare. Now, they can grow it in their own gardens.
Broccoflower’s flavor, texture, and nutrition merge the best of broccoli and cauliflower. It tastes sweet and nutty and is crunchy when raw and tender when cooked. Its nutrients are similar to broccoli’s and cauliflower’s, with variations here and there, like more eye-and-skin-enhancing beta carotene than cauliflower and less than broccoli.
Those who want to keep broccoflower’s pale green color should eat it raw or lightly cooked. Like broccoli, broccoflower contains heat-sensitive chlorophyll and turns brown when cooked too long. Broccoflower tends to hold on to its color better when gently roasted, grilled, or sautéed than boiled.