After its discovery in a Canadian marsh more than 30 years ago, the brightly hued crucifer is finally hitting the U.S. market.
The cauliflower hybrid now being sold in garden catalogs was developed by breeders at the New York State Agricultural Station in Geneva, part of Cornell University.
Michael Dickson, the breeder who led its development, says orange cauliflower has caught the attention of restaurant chefs because of its superior appearance. The hybrid also has about 25 times more vitamin A than its pale cousin, making it more appealing to health-conscious consumers.
Dickson says he expects the vegetable to do well.
"It's another variant farmers can grow and at this point it will probably sell a little better because it's new and looks attractive," he said. "The color stays well after cooking too. I think it will be quite popular. We did test marketing several years ago and it was quite well received."
Dickson started developing the vegetable in 1981 after researchers from the National Vegetable Research Center in England who were familiar with his work forwarded him some seeds from the mutant plant, first found in the Bradford Marsh north of Toronto in 1970.
Dickson said the mutant was smaller and not as flavorful as white cauliflower, so it had to be crossbred with standard cauliflower. Development was tricky, partly because cauliflower hadn't been developed as a hybrid before.
"We had hybrid cabbage, but cauliflower is a different kettle of fish," said Dickson, who retired in 1995. "If you don't have the right parents, you don't necessarily get a nice color, you get a pale, pukey color."
He worked on the cauliflower as a side project for years, publishing the genetics of his work in the late 1980s and early 1990s. He followed that up by distributing experimental samples to seed companies in 1992.
After further development by companies such as Stokes, the vegetable is available now to commercial growers and home gardeners. Johnny's Selected Seeds, based in Winslow, Maine, limited orders to 5,000 seeds this year and sold out, said Steve Bellavia, a vegetable product manager.
"It's a very nice variety," Bellavia said. "The sales have been good for it. It has that nice orange color, and good growing characteristics. It grows well, uniformly and it's easy to grow."
Bellavia says cauliflower are often difficult to grow because of sensitivity to water or heat stress, but the orange variety does well in poor conditions.
Laura Pedersen, who runs a 1,200 acre vegetable farm with her husband Rick in Seneca Castle, 33 miles southeast of Rochester, grew the vegetable last year, selling it in a grocery store chain and to customers in New York City. They are growing it again this year.
Stores "really liked it because it's a novelty, it's something different," she said. "It's a real attractive display too."
Seminis Vegetable Seeds expects to have its orange cauliflower seeds ready for commercial sales by fall, said Gary Koppenjan, spokesman for the Oxnard, Calif.-based company.
"Anytime when new things come out, people hesitate at first, but then people start to look at it as a value-added product," said Cy Lee, a professor of food chemistry at Cornell who determined the nutritional value of orange cauliflower. "It's a niche market for the consumer who likes to have some variety."