Cauliflower is one of several vegetables in the species Brassica oleracea in the genus Brassica, which is in the family Brassicaceae. It is an annual plant that reproduces by seed. Typically, only the head is eaten – the edible white flesh sometimes called “curd” (similar appearance to cheese curd). The cauliflower head is composed of a white inflorescence meristem. Cauliflower heads resemble those in broccoli, which differs in having flower buds as the edible portion. Brassica oleracea also includes broccoli, brussels sprouts, cabbage, collard greens, and kale, collectively called “cole” crops, though they are of different cultivar groups.
In the 1st century AD, Pliny included what he called cyma among his descriptions of cultivated plants in Natural History: “Ex omnibus brassicae generibus suavissima est cyma,” (“Of all the varieties of cabbage the most pleasant-tasted is cyma“). Pliny’s descriptions likely refer to the flowering heads of an earlier cultivated variety of Brassica oleracea, but comes close to describing modern cauliflower.In the 12th century, three varieties were described in Spain as introductions from Syria, where it had doubtless been grown for more than a thousand years. It is found in the writings of the Arab botanists Ibn al-‘Awwam and Ibn al-Baitar, in the 12th and 13th centuries when its origins were said to be Cyprus.
François Pierre La Varenne employed chouxfleurs in Le cuisinier françois. They were introduced to France from Genoa in the 16th century, and are featured in Olivier de Serres’ Théâtre de l’agriculture (1600), as cauli-fiori “as the Italians call it, which are still rather rare in France; they hold an honorable place in the garden because of their delicacy”, but they did not commonly appear on grand tables until the time of Louis XIV. It was introduced in India in 1822 from England by the British.
Cauliflower is relatively difficult to grow compared to cabbage, with common problems such as an underdeveloped head and poor curd quality.
As weather is a limiting factor for producing cauliflower, the plant grows best in cool daytime temperatures 70–85 °F (21–29 °C), with plentiful sun, and moist soil conditions high in organic matter and sandy soils. The earliest maturity possible for cauliflower is 7 to 12 weeks from transplanting. In the northern hemisphere, fall season plantings in July may enable harvesting before autumn frost.
Long periods of sun exposure in summer hot weather may cause cauliflower heads to discolor with a red-purple hue.