Colza, or the Plant with the Unfortunate Name

Spring in many parts of Europe brings landscapes quilted with fields of gently waving colza, or rapeseed flowers, in an explosive sea of yellow. Basse-Normandie, where we live, is no exception and makes for breathtaking drives through the countryside.

Despite its unfortunate name in the English language, the plant represents good business not only in the European Union but worldwide, and because of its usefulness, the popularity of rapeseed has been on the rise for years.

The plant’s benefits include so much more than a low-saturated-fat, high-Omega content. Rapeseed production doesn’t only bring a mild-tasting vegetable oil to our kitchens and salads, it also brings a high-protein meal used as feed for livestock. Where the seed is the only harvested component of the plant, the rest of the crop—i.e. straw, roots, and seed pods—is tilled back into the soil.

Oil harvested from rapeseed is known in the Americas as Canola. This is a name fabricated to get away from the negative connotations of the term rapecan being short for Canada and alo an abbreviation for acid-low oil.

The oil is even used as a bio-lubricant for chainsaws and is also added to petroleum to create biodiesel. In the EU over half of the production of rapeseed oil is used as such to comply with EU regulation on the use of a clean(er) diesel oil for heating purposes, cars, etc. Progression in technology will make it so it can be used without being blended with fossil fuel. The downside is that the cost of oil extraction from the seeds is higher than that of fossil fuel, but if anything, this may be the very axle that drives production up even more in the long term.

Additionally, it’s an insect-pollinated crop and the flowers’ rich nectar attracts honeybees. It is mutually beneficial for beekeepers to contract with rapeseed farmers to cover the crops. The honey from honeycombs is blended with better honey varieties and used for baking. Currently there are 20 beekeepers listed in Basse-Normandie.

The plant is related to cabbage, known in the Asian kitchen as Yu Choy or Chinese Greens. It’s cooked with spices in stir-fries. Here’s a recipe

What’s most perplexing about the vegetable oil is that it repels radionuclides, and the crop can therefore be successfully grown and cultivated in areas of nuclear disaster and actually aids the recovery.

That’s an amazing list of benefits, and no matter how much the critics gripe about the genetic engineering angle of this story (e.g. current varieties are pest -and drought resistant), these benefits are the reason the plant is and will play an ever greater part in the future of sustainability for our planet and for humanity.

To this amateur photographer and newly coined author, the consumption of rapeseed oil begins so much sooner than a salad and fries on my plate. It starts when rain and spring sunshine turn the fields into stunning expanses of bright yellow flowers, and a drive through the countryside makes my heart sing with joy.

If the crop isn’t farmed around where you live, I hope included photos will bring some of that joy to you too!


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