Missionaries Sent Seeds of These to Europe
Chinese cabbage (Brassica pekinensis) and Chinese mustard (Brassica chinensis) are so similar in their origin, history, and plant characters that it is best to deal with them together.
These common names are simply modern Anglo-American terms that indicate our impressions of what these two plants are. In America we often use the Chinese name pe-tsai for Chinese cabbage. Both vegetables, in effect, are mild-flavored "mustards." The first one makes an erect, moderately compact, nearly cylindrical "head," suggesting a kind of cabbage; the other develops a clump or cluster of leaves that does not form such a distinct head.
Chinese cabbage has been erroneously called "celery cabbage" because of the fancied similarity of shape of the head to a bunch of celery, but it is not related to celery in any way. Furthermore, the implied similarity is farfetched.
Some varieties of Chinese mustard have neat leaf blades that are somewhat spoonshaped, with long, white, erect leaf stalks, all forming a clump so dense that they were long confused with pe-tsai by Americans. This type is only one of the remarkable diversity of leaf shapes and growth habits found within the species in the Orient.
Slow To Spread from Asiatic Homeland
Chinese cabbage and Chinese mustard are native to eastern Asia, possibly to Japan as well as to eastern China. They are mentioned in Chinese literature of the 5th century after Christ, but are much older than that.
Since Indian mustard, also from China, has had world-wide popularity for centuries, it is strange that these two close relatives appear to have been introduced into other lands so recently and to have remained of little importance in most lands. It may be because they are less adaptable to various soils and climates than Indian mustard.
These plants were unknown in Malaya and the East Indies until carried there by the Chinese traders. Hundreds of years ago Chinese on business abroad established "islands" of Chinese culture and customs in foreign lands, very much as modern people do. Chinese writers of the 15th century pointed out that Chinese cabbage and Chinese mustard could be obtained in Malacca, where there was a Chinese colony, but they were not commonly grown in Malaya.
The first record of these "mustards" in Europe was in 17 5 1, but they remained oddities there for a hundred years or more. During the 18th century various European missionaries to the Orient sent seeds of these varieties to Europe from time to time, but they failed to become popular.
The most prominent seedsman of France introduced Chinese cabbage to his country in 1845, but again it failed to "catch on." The seed even became exhausted or lost and the plant was reintroduced later.
Bewildering Diversity Grown in Orient
There has long been confusion over the botanical identity of Chinese cabbage, Chinese mustard, Indian mustard, and various closely related forms. The Chinese and Japanese have done so much breeding or selecting within these species for hundreds of years that there is an almost unbelievable diversity of varieties in each species.
It is impossible to determine to what species some of these things belong, merely upon seeing them in the garden. The numerous forms grade into one another with no clean line of demarcation. The distinction even between Chinese cabbage and Chinese mustard is often vague.
In America we prefer such varieties of Chinese cabbage as Chihli, which forms a long, slender, nearly cylindrical head that is relatively solid and weighs one to two pounds when trimmed. I was amazed at the enormously thick, squat types, weighing ten to twelve pounds, that the Japanese prefer. The variety sold in this country as Pak Choy is not Chinese cabbage, strictly speaking, but Chinese mustard.
Americans Like Them Best in Salads
Chinese cabbage and Chinese mustard are without the pungency or "hotness" of Indian mustard. Therefore, when cooked they are lacking in distinctive flavor. They are most commonly eaten raw as salads rather than cooked as potherbs. Indian mustard is much better for cooking as greens. The mild, sprightly succulence of Chinese mustards in salads is delightful.
Chinese cabbage and Chinese mustard are annual plants that grow best in a mild climate. If they are planted at such a season that they encounter very hot weather, they will shoot to seed without forming the attractive and productive kind of plant that is desired. Over the warmer half of the United States they generally do better when planted in summer for an autumn crop than when planted in the spring.
The varieties that we grow have been introduced from the Orient.