NGA Articles: Collards and Kale

Collards and Kale

By: Deborah Wechsler

The first collards I ever saw were some three-foot-tall plants in a San Francisco backyard; the first kale I ever enjoyed eating was grown by some back-to-the-land farmers in western Oregon. Since I moved to North Carolina, I've taken up the southerner's dedication to growing and eating collards with real enthusiasm. These two brassicas can be grown anywhere in the country at some time of the year because they are the least fussy plants in the large cabbage tribe. Their prime value to gardeners is that these highly nutritious greens thrive and are most delicious when it's too cold for other vegetables.

Don't let their dissimilar looks fool you: Collards and kale are very closely related. In fact, collards are really a type of kale, a primitive member of the cabbage family. Kale is similar to the wild headless cabbage that grows on the seacoasts of western Europe and the Mediterranean. This botanical trivia helps to explain why collards and kale can be grown, harvested and cooked in much the same way.

A Guide to Varieties

There are a surprising number of collard and kale varieties. In its Garden Seed Inventory, The Seed Savers Exchange (an organization devoted to preserving open-pollinated seeds) lists 41 kales and 10 collards offered by American seed companies in the mid 1990s. The name Vates crops up in names of both kale and collards, and I figured Dr. Vates for some distinguished plant breeder. But Vates turns out to be an acronym for the Virginia Truck Experiment Station, a hotbed of collard and kale research from 1909 through the 1960s.

The most common kale in America today is frilly and blue-green 'Dwarf Blue Curled Scotch Vates'. Slow-bolting 'Squire' is an improved Vates type. Tightly curled varieties like these are favorites of commercial growers raising the "garnish kale" that is challenging parsley as the restaurant garnish of choice. But other culinary kales are frilly in the extreme and blushed with red 'Ragged Jack', 'Russian Red', and 'Winter Red'. These presage the outrageous ornamental types that have proliferated in the hands of Japanese plant breeders. And there are varieties with large, flat, strap-like leaves ('Lacinato', 'Smooth Long Standing') that point the way to collards, which themselves show aspirations toward the cabbage form.

Collards fall into two groups. 'Vates' and 'Georgia' collards are popular and typical of the loose-leaf type. The leaves are dark green and arise from a stalk that elongates slightly as the plant grows (as do most kales). 'Champion' is a slow-bolting variety selected by the VA Truck Experiment Station. The other varieties spread wide but stay more compact, eventually forming a loose head of paler green leaves in the center. 'Morris Heading' and 'Cabbage Collards' are the best-known loose-heading varieties.

Hybrid collards are prolific, grow quickly in cool weather and mature all at once. 'Flash' and 'Heavi-Crop' are Vates-type hybrids; 'Top Bunch' is a Morris-Heading-style hybrid. But for gardeners plants mature at different rates are more practical.

'Green Glaze', an old collard variety, has dark, shiny leaves that seem to be less attractive to caterpillars. Brassica breeders are attempting to introduce this genetic trait into broccoli and the other more glamorous relatives of collards.

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