The word "cruciferous" stems from the New Latin word cruciferae, which means "cross-bearing." It is a term used to describe plants that have the sepals, flowers and leaves positioned in a cross-like pattern. Cruciferous plants belong to the mustard plant family, cabbage plant family or angiosperm family and are often referred to as crucifers, cruciferae or Brassicaceae. The flowering plants either grow wild or they are grown for culinary and ornamental purposes.
Among the cruciferous family are more than 300 genera and more than 3,000 species, which include vegetables, wild flowering plants and weeds as well as small shrubs. In the Mediterranean region, cruciferous shrubs might grow to be as high as 10 feet (about 3 m). Wild flowering plants such as the matthiola, alyssum and iberis are often used in gardens for ornamental purposes as well as in flower bouquets and other flower arrangements. The flowers of cruciferous plants usually have four petals and four sepals, which are opposite one from the other to give the appearance of a cross. They have two short stamens and four long stamens, which are also positioned in a cross-like appearance.
The crucifer plant family includes perennials, annuals and biennials. A perennial plant is one that can last for more than two years, an annual is a plant that lasts a year or less, and a biennial is one that takes two years to complete its life cycle. Biennials such as cabbage and Brussels sprouts are mainly used for culinary purposes and thus are commonly grown as annuals.
Vegetables within the family are referred to as cruciferous vegetables. They are cultivated for culinary purposes worldwide and are considered to be one of the major crops around the world. Depending on the vegetable, the roots, stems, flowers, leaves and seeds are consumed. Examples of these include radish, beets, kohlrabi, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, kale and mustard seeds. The vegetables are suitable for raw consumption as well as for steaming, stir frying, boiling and baking.
Cruciferous vegetables contain indole-3-carbinol, which helps protect the DNA cells and fight against cancer. They are said to be high in vitamin C, fiber and other important nutrients, including cancer-fighting agents such as sulforaphane and selenium. Other substances found in the plants are goitrogens and nitriles, which in large quantities might be harmful for health. Goitrogens can contribute to the formation of goiters, and nitriles can negatively affect the kidneys or liver. These substances can be reduced in the foods by boiling the food for about 30 minutes.