Romanesco cauliflowers start life as failed flowers

The Romanesco cauliflower, with its fractal florets, is one of the strangest-looking vegetables. It gets its unusual structure from failed flowers.


Romanescos, like conventional cauliflowers, is a result of selective breeding of the Brassica oleracea plant, which also gives rise to other familiar vegetables like cabbage, broccoli, and kale.

Cauliflowers, including Romanesco, get their form because they start out as flower buds that don’t turn into blooms, according to François Parcy of the French National Centre for Scientific Research and his colleagues. These buds develop into shoots, which produce more blooms that also fail, and the process is repeated in a cyclical reaction.

“At first, all I could think was, ‘yay, finally an answer.’ “These are repeatable patterns,” says Alexander Bucksch of the University of Georgia in the United States, who was not involved in the study. “We can measure them, but why they exist and how they are governed biologically have always been more of a mystery.”

While we don’t have all the answers, we now have a better understanding of the biological mechanism that causes fractals to form. Parcy and his colleagues investigated the genes involved and developed a three-dimensional computational model of plant development to describe how this occurs.

Parcy explains, “They start off as flowers and eventually lose their identity.” “Imagine a firecracker that explodes and produces light. It’s as if they’re all bursting at the same time. And what you get is the cauliflower’s structure, which is the consequence of all those successive explosions.”

The difference between conventional cauliflowers and Romanesco is that in the finished Romanesco, each solitary failed blossom is apparent. This is because Romanesco shoots produce more buds at a faster rate, which pushes the growing tip out from the center of the growing cauliflower, resulting in the Romanesco’s distinctive conical shapes. Other cauliflower buds are generated at a consistent rate, giving the ultimate product a unique look with spherical, hummocky florets.

“The Romanesco is something truly exceptional. Parcy says, “I don’t know any plant that looks like this.” “In a way, it’s coded in the plant’s code to do that.”

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