Bok Choy – A Plant That The Chinese Have Grown For Over 5,000 Years

Bok choy (Brassica rapa subsp. Chinensis), also known as pak choi, or pok choi, is a Chinese cabbage type. You usually find it in dishes you order at a Chinese restaurant, though it’s becoming popular in home gardens too.

But what the bok choy plant is? Where does it grow, and how is it used? Keep reading this post, and you’ll find the answer to these, together with many other questions you may have in your mind about these intriguing vegetables.

Originating from China, bok choy is a member of the cabbage family, Brassicaceae. Plants like cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, and Brussel sprout also belong to the same family. It’s a cool-season biennial crop but is usually harvested during the first growing season. The crunchy stalks are surrounded by soft leaves and taste much like cabbage and chards.

The vegetable finds several uses in the kitchen, particularly if you’re fond of Chinese recipes. Steamed, braised, or cooked, they make a bright, fresh, and flavorful addition to the dinner table no matter how you serve them. You can add them to soups, stir-fries, or salads. They also make an excellent addition to fillings for spring rolls, dumplings, and steamed buns.

Common NameBok Choy, Pak Choi, Pok Choi
Botanical NameBrassica Rapa Subsp. Chinensis
Plant TypeBiennial But Usually Grown As An Annual
Size (Fully Grown)6 – 24 Inches (15 – 61 cm) Tall And 6 – 18 Inches (15 – 46 cm) Wide
Sun ExposureFull Sun Or Partial Shade
Soil TypeFertile Soil That Is Rich In Organic Matter And Drains Well
Soil pHFrom 6.0 To 7.5
Flower ColorYellow
U.S. Hardiness Zones2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, And 11
Native AreaChina

How Many Bok Choy Varieties Are There?

While you may find the same kind of bok choy in the vegetable aisle at the grocery store every time, there are many kinds of cultivars available for growing in home gardens. Some varieties will have large, crunchy white stems, while others have pale, softer stems.

Dwarf varieties are also available and are great for growing in containers. Heat-tolerant types work best for tropical climates. Here’s a list of some popular cultivars:

  1. Rosie
  2. Red Pac
  3. Joi Choi
  4. Green Pac
  5. White Stem
  6. Li Ren Choi
  7. Asian Delight
  8. Tatsoi Rosette
  9. Win-Win Choi
  10. Black Summer
  11. Mei Qing Choi

Where Did Bok Choy Originate From?

Although the western world may consider it a new vegetable, it has been an integral part of Asian cuisine for thousands of years. People believe that the plant is native to the Yangtze River Delta, China, with 6000-years old seeds discovered in the region. Chinese not only used it as an essential culinary ingredient but also as traditional medicine.

It wasn’t until the 14th century that the vegetable spread to Korea to become one of the main ingredients of kimchi, a popular Korean side dish made from fermented vegetables.

After the Ruso-Japenese War in 1904-1905, the vegetable also spread to Japan with the Japenese soldiers who fought in China.

Does Bok Choy Grow In The US?

Well, yes, yes it does, and the reason for that is because, by the mid-eighteenth century, bok choy had spread to Europe. Chinese immigrants who came to settle in California in the nineteenth century were primarily responsible for introducing bok choy to the US.

How To Recognize Bok Choy?

Bok choy is a beautiful biennial plant grown as an annual for its edible stems and leaves. It grows low to the ground, reaching a height of approximately 1 to 2 feet (about 30 – 61 cm) and a spread of 12 inches (about 30 cm).

You can also find dwarf varieties that only grow to about 10 inches (about 25 cm) tall and have a smaller spread. It’s easy to recognize with the bulbous, firm stems at the base and broad leaves surrounding it at the top. Unlike cabbage that forms a head, bok choy leaves form clusters.

Roots

Bok choy has a compact root system that spreads close to the ground, making it an ideal variety for container gardening.

Stems

Bok choy has thick, crunchy stems. They’re either white, pale, or green. The stalks shoot upright from the root base and produce oval flaring leaves surrounding it.

The stems are also edible, along with the leaves. They’re harvested and steamed, braised, cooked, or stir-fried. They are equally delicious, no matter which way you serve them.

Leaves

The broad, oval outward flaring leaves cover the white stalks at the base. The leaves are soft and smooth, and you can easily distinguish them from their large white midribs. The leaves can be dark green, light green, or even purple, depending on the variety, and like the stems, they are edible.

The plant is generally harvested from the base, with the stalks and the leaves, and you can eat those leaves fresh in salads or even steam, stir-fry, boil, or microwave them. The flavor is a mix of cabbage and chard, with a hint of mustard. With those rich flavors, bok choy is excellent for Asian dishes.

Flowers

Growers typically harvest bok choy before it even gets a chance to flower. But, since it’s a cool-season crop, lengthening daylight hours and increased temperatures can sometimes cause the plant to bolt.

This happens when a flowering stalk shoots up from the plant’s center with bright yellow umbel clusters at the tips. These flowers are also edible, making them a beautiful garnish on top of salads, seafood, and soups.

© zgurski1980 – stock.adobe.com

In What Kind Of Conditions Does Bok Choy Grow Best In?

Bok choy is a cool-season crop that’s usually planted in late summers to grow over the fall. Though it’s a biennial plant, growers typically harvest the plant once the stems and leaves are mature, approximately 45 to 60 days after germination. But if you grow “Baby” bok choy varieties, you might notice that they mature even faster.

This fast-growing plant is also frost-hardy and, as you might expect, very easy to care of. If you’re planning on adding these to your fall veggie garden, here are some useful tips:

Temperature

Even though it can grow in most USDA zones (2 to 11), cooler climates are best for bok choy. 55 to 70°F (about 12,5 to 21°C) is the optimal temperature range for growing bok choy, though it can tolerate some light frost.

Remember, though, that if the temperatures dip below 50°F (10°C) for long periods, bok choy will bolt as soon as the temperatures rise again. Once bolted, you can still consume bok choy, but they won’t be as tender or as flavorful as you’d expect.

Bok choy can tolerate temperatures slightly higher than 70°F (about 21°C), as long as you maintain consistent moisture.

Soil And Sun

The plant wants well-draining, fertile soil with a pH between 6.5 to 7. It would also be a good idea to amend the garden bed with compost well before planting, so it contains nutrients the plants need to thrive.

Sow the seeds close together in the garden bed, thin them to 3 to 5 inches (about 7,5 to 13 cm) once the seedlings appear. Standard varieties will need more spacing, while dwarf varieties will work well with a 3-inch (about 7,5 cm) gap between plants.

Lastly, bok choy will grow best in the partial shade when it comes to sunlight needs, even though it can tolerate full sun.

Water And Fertilizing

Maintain consistent moisture in the soil during germination and throughout the growing season. Lack of water can cause the plant to go to seed. But also, avoid overwatering and always water at the base, taking care not to soak the leaves too much, because, in a worst-case scenario, wet foliage can encourage rot.

Bok choy’s are heavy-feeders that thrive in soil rich in nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus. But, if you’ve planted them in a rich, organic garden bed, amended with compost before planting, extra fertilization isn’t usually needed since it only requires a short growing season. But, if you notice pale leaves or prolonged growth, you can feed it with diluted nitrogen-rich liquid fertilizer.

Is It Safe To Eat / Consume Bok Choy?

Bok choy is a healthy vegetable, rich in nutrients and low in calories. It includes folates, Vitamin C, Vitamin E, Vitamin K, iron, phosphorus, magnesium, beta-carotene, and several other nutrients essential for your health.

Next, let’s find out if there are any conditions in which its consumption should be monitored or avoided.

Pregnant And Breastfeeding Women

Bok choy is rich in folates, iron, Vitamin K, and calcium – all essential for a baby’s development and a healthy mother. Bok choy is safe, even beneficial, to consume during pregnancy or breastfeeding.

Children

Bok choy is safe and very nutritious for children. You can also introduce it to a baby’s diet, but make sure it’s cooked and pureed so your baby can digest it easily.

People With Allergies

Bok choy allergies haven’t been reported in medical contents. But, if you’re allergic to mugwort pollen, you may experience oral allergy symptoms upon consuming bok choy, cabbage, and other similar vegetables. If you experience any itching or swelling around your mouth, consult a doctor.

People Taking Blood Thinners

Since bok choy is rich in Vitamin K, people taking blood thinners, such as warfarin, or Coumadin, should consult their doctor before consuming bok choy.

People With Diabetes

Since bok-choy is a high-fiber food, it’s healthy for people with diabetes. It can help control blood sugar levels.

Pets

The plant is non-toxic. You can also offer it to your cats or dogs, but only in moderate amounts.

Featured image credit – © naiyanab – stock.adobe.com

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