Ornamental Kale: A Depression-era beauty - East Valley Tribune: At Home

Ornamental Kale: A Depression-era beauty

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Posted: Wednesday, February 11, 2009 11:46 am | Updated: 2:25 am, Sat Oct 8, 2011.

It was a Depression baby introduced to the United States in 1929. Folks from the USDA took a trip to Japan and found the most curious members of the cabbage family. These were intensely beautiful forms of European kale, introduced to the Far East centuries earlier.

The Japanese grew them avidly and began selecting those with unique coloring. Over the years, these took on fabulous hues, with exotic variegation that made the cabbage head appear more like a giant flower.

Hot pink, creamy yellow, white and dark purple are all standard colors for this veggie-turned-ornamental. The shapes of the leaves are also highly variable. Those with deeply cut frilly leaves are loosely grouped as ornamental kale. Those with heads that feature larger rounded solid leaves are dubbed ornamental cabbage. All forms are of the species Brassica oleracea, which also includes broccoli and cauliflower.

You’ll find these plants in garden centers . They are grown to a dense rosette the size of half a soccer ball under controlled conditions, then sold to go straight out into the garden. Like their European ancestors, these ornamentals take a light frost in stride. Like their ancestors, they are edible.

Indeed, ornamentals offer fabulous leaves to use in the kitchen. Brightly colored leaves of the kale types make wonderful garnishes. Cabbage sorts can be layered over a plate beneath lovely delicacies. All may be chopped fresh to go right into the soup pot a few minutes before serving for a dose of freshly picked vitamins.

All cabbage does something odd when it gets ready to flower. The stem that connects all the leaves at the center of the head elongates, rising up into a tall stalk. It retains its leaves, but there will be gaps between each one. When the stem matures, small yellow-mustard-like flowers are produced at the top. Naturally, the beautiful, tight head of color is destroyed. Some gardeners accept this and enjoy its altered lanky beauty, while others remove them altogether and replace with heat-loving summer annuals.

One of the most popular ways to use ornamental kale is in a checkerboard pattern. Alternate a white variegated form with a purple one to create a bold display. Ornamental kale is coveted for container gardens, too. They offer a great alternative to tender succulents in mixed color bowls. You can also remain traditional and use them as centerpieces for blends of soft pastel flowers.

Consider growing ornamental cabbage from seed for literally pennies per plant. If you can grow an edible cabbage from seed, you can grow an ornamental one. Check out a truly spectacular selection of varieties for sale at www.seedman.com.

So enjoy your kales in the spirit of the Great Depression-era gardeners who grew these plants from Japan in America’s back yards.

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