NGA Articles: Kale, the Power Vegetable

Kale, the Power Vegetable (cont)

By: Frank Morton

Venerable Varieties

A hundred years ago, kale filled a bigger niche in most people's lives. Before refrigeration and long-distance shipping, kale was a cold-season staple. Chickens thrived on it, and cattle had their own named types.

The classic 1885 catalog, The Vegetable Garden, by the French horticulturist Vilmorin, listed 26 kale or borecole varieties. These included perennial kales, kales with swollen edible trunks (marrowstem kale), kales for all seasons of production, and kales bred for their broccoli- or asparagus-like shoots. One example is Vilmorin's 'Jersey Kale', also called tree cabbage. It lived for three springs and reached 9 feet tall! After its flowering tip was snapped away and given to the cattle, the woody stem could be fashioned into a strong, lightweight, and very classy walking stick.

Few of the varieties listed in The Vegetable Garden are widely available today, and many are probably extinct. One exception is 'Palm Tree Borecole', now making a comeback as 'Lacinato' or 'Cavolo Palmizio'(palm cabbage). We've grown this for several years, and it's won acclaim from everyone who's tried it, including our 5- and 7-year-old boys.

Renee Shepherd, owner of Renee's Seeds, Felton, California, described 'Lacinato' affectionately as "dinosaur kale" for its primitive appearance. The dark blue-green leaves are 2 to 4 inches across and sometimes more than 2 feet long, and have none of the curls and frills common in kales. Rather, the leaves are rumpled and puckered like savoy cabbage (certainly part of its heritage) and curled under along the entire margin. 'Lacinato' is a stout and substantial kale used for Tuscan soups and stews.

'Red Russian' has done more than any other variety to enhance kale's image. This heirloom (a variety of B. napus) is essentially a rutabaga developed for its top growth rather than its root. It began reappearing in catalogs around 1980. Among its major advantages, it's good raw in salads, and its oak-shaped leaves -- in colors ranging from blue-green to purple-red -- show off in edible landscapes and mesclun salads. Cold weather intensifies its color, and it will survive winter lows of 0° F to produce a large crop of purple-stemmed sweet shoots in spring.

'Winter Red' is a newer 'Red Russian' type with great winter vigor, color, and flavor. 'Ragged Jack' is similar to 'Red Russian' but lacks its winter hardiness.

Two other heirlooms, 'Tall Green Curled' and its compact form 'Dwarf Green Curled', have set the kale standard (green, frilly, upright leaves) since before 1865 and are still available.

In 1950, researchers at the Virginia Truck Experiment Station introduced 'Vates Dwarf Blue Scotch Curled', which is the most widely grown kale in the United States. 'Konserva', a Danish variety, and the Dutch 'Westlandse Winter' are the standard varieties in Europe. Both have dark green, well-curled leaves on 24-inch plants. 'Verdura', a hybrid of 'Westlandse Winter', is available in the United States. Another hybrid, 'Winterbor F1' is noted for its high yields, cold hardiness, uniformity, and ruffled green leaves on vigorous 3-foot-tall plants.


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