Gardening Articles: Health :: Health

Kale, the Power Vegetable

by Frank Morton


Ornamental kale is attractive and edible. Harvest young leaves for your salad mixes. Inset: 'Lacinato' kale.

Kale suffers from a staid reputation. Gardeners appreciate its willingness to grow when and where other vegetables won't, and its healthfulness is legend. But this article speaks to kale's lesser-known but more potent virtue, namely its staggering genetic diversity. This cabbage relative is so diverse, its living presence so dramatic, and its ease of culture so universal, that it is bound to be an important vegetable into the next millennium.

Kale's diversity is an invitation to gardeners to experiment and explore. You'll find types suited to nearly every North American region with a cool growing season: from summer in Alaska to winter in Florida. If you live in the South or in a mild coastal region, kale offers a good introduction to winter gardening. And if your area stays above 0F (USDA Hardiness Zones 6b and milder), in addition to eating a lot of fresh kale in winter, you can gather the sweet, tender shoots in spring. Their flavor (lightly steamed) equals that of broccoli.

Getting to Know Kale

I've known about kale forever, it seems. My mother used to cook it for my father but never offered me any. Wise mother: why waste that delicious green on a child likely to reject it -- She also delighted in recounting how an old-time gardener liked to freeze so much kale for winter that she used her washing machine to get the dirt out of it. It wasn't until I was 25 that I cooked kale for myself, but by the time I was 30 I was selling 'Red Russian' kale seedlings, leaves, shoots, and blossoms to New York restaurants.

When people ask, "What is kale?" I usually reply, "Primitive cabbage." But a more precise (and complicated) answer is that kales are also primitive rutabagas.

The kale family, botanically the genus Brassica, includes three species with leafy forms -- probably close to those of the original wildings -- that gardeners call kale: B. oleracea, the wild ancestor of cabbage, broccoli, brussels sprouts, kohlrabi, and cauliflower, is from the Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts of Europe. The B. o. Alboglabra group includes the white-flowered Chinese kale. It's native to Southeast Asia. The kales that I work with most are B. napus. This species includes rutabaga, 'Red Russian' kale, and rape and is widely adapted and distributed in northern Eurasia, though its native region is unknown.

Compared to its more famous relatives, such as broccoli, cabbage, and kohlrabi, only kale retains the dignity of a well-rounded aboriginal.

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