The Long Island Seed Project

Collards and Kale

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Collards and Kale:  Brassica oleracea

September, 2007


The Story of Mr. Collard

Zak Ettlinger, Lee North and Mr. Collard

The e-mail read:
I have a collard plant (quite sure it's a
> collard!) that has been growing in
> > my garden for five to seven years. Have pictures,
> and just finished
> > yesterday cutting back (again) and taking the
> leaves for collard greens tonight.
> > :-))
> >
> > The thing that is amazing to me is that I first
> tho't it was a weed that had
> > wintered over in the garden, but something told me
> not to pull it out... so
> > I left it and after a couple years, put a cage
> around it so that no one else
> > would destroy it. It worked, and it's grown to
> where it spreads out about a
> > diameter of six or seven feet, about four or five
> feet high.
> >
> > I've taken pictures and would be glad to send, but
> if someone could come out
> > and see Mr. Collard, I'd sure appreciate. And let
> us know if it's really a
> > collard (or a "bigfoot" veggie hiding as one?)
> >
> > Sincerely, E. Lee North

I received a copy of Lee North's e-mail through Craig Cramer, Communications Specialist, Department of Horticulture at Cornell ( who suggested that I might want to take a look at this ancient collard plant since I live just a half hour away from Mr. Lee.  So, we made arrangements to meet and sure enough, there was the collard in question with 2 " trunk with a fair development of xylem (wood). Mr. North had just cut the collard plant back removing most of it's four foot long branches full of long green seed pods so these pictures don't show it's former hugeness! It is indeed a very hardy specimen.

Whether it was a cabbage or collard is hard to tell since they are so very closely related and after the first year, cabbages tend to produce loose leafy growth instead of heads. Lee had pictures of the specimen going back several years but it's origin had been forgotten.

I gathered some green seed pods from his compost and ripened the seed but they proved not to be viable. It may be that they just weren't ripe enough to mature off the plant or maybe, as with many brassicas, you need more than one plant.  Sometimes there is a self-incompatibility problem. Lee could propagate his plant by taking cuttings, using a rooting hormone and a mist table.

There are members of the brassica family that have been selected to grow over a number of years. A British variety of broccoli called "Nine Star" becomes a giant of a plant and in Great Britain where they have mild winters it is considered a perennial whose prolific florets can be cut as a spring vegetable every year. Cutting the flower buds as with broccoli or the seed pods as with Mr. North does with Mr. Collard before they mature may fool the plant into extending what is normally a biennial existance into a greater longevity. In fact, in the coastal regions of the U.S. south where collard greens are harvested through winter into spring they will survive a number of years but mostly they are allowed to reseed since the young plants tend to be more vigorous and productive.

Other brassicas that behave in a somewhat perennial fashion is a cabbage relative called the "walking stick cabbage" which produces a several foot woody trunk that is cured and used as a cane.  Although propagated by seed some say, the best walking sticks are produced from cuttings off the finest parent plants. The variety, "Thousand Headed" kale has also wintered over and over to resprout an abundance of greens.

Southern Greasy Collard

No, it's perfectly dry- even though it looks wet. This is the Greasy Collard that we've been growing since 1983. We came across the seed in an old farm and hardware store in Alabama where the seed was still being scooped by the tablespoon out of small wooden drawers. A year later the only wholesale supplier of the Greasy Collard dropped the line and it was suddenly out of commerce without warning. USDA researchers had done some preliminary studies that indicated that the abnormal waxy cuticle covering the leaves of the Greasy Collard had the ability to dramatically lower pest damage. Usually the waxy leaf coating of collards, like cabbages have a dull waxy surface.  Greasy Collards has the glossy leaf trait.  One of the researchers contacted us in 1986 to see whether we had the variety. Fortunately, we had produced several ounces of seed from overwintered plants that summer and sent the researchers the seed they needed. We don't know what the results of their experiments but we do know that they were interested in incorporating the "glossy leaf trait" into other members of the Brassica family. A good idea. If one could succeed in doing that, it would be a coup for organic farmers especially.

We raised a nice seed crop from plants that were mulched heavily in leaves and overwintered. Collards are capable of producing a huge amount of seed.  You should try it.

Dr. Jeff McCormick, the founder of Southern Exposure Seeds also kept seeds of Southern Greasy and over the years developed a possible different breeding line that exhibited off-types.   Since the "greasy-leaf" trait is recessive, it can easily be lost when "Greasy" receives stray pollen from any brassica that is in bloom at the same time.  Jeff managed to rogue out the off types and managed to restore the purity of "Greasy".  Southern Exposure Seeds is a good source of heirlooms from the South and should be checked out as a source of  unique varieties.


1. 2.
1. F1 Hybrid parent kales  and 2. F2 generation from a mass cross of the two popular kales

Kales and collards are just cabbages that never form heads- and brussel sprouts are just miniature cabbages. They are all in the same family and as members of the same species within the same family, they are able to cross pollinate with one another. While that might lead to the development of some very interesting varieties, it also could reduce the quality of some fine old varieties. When you are contemplating raising part of your brassica crop for seed- you have to make the decision to isolate or not. It's not as simple as that, because; essentially, most brassicas have the ability to cross (with varying degrees of success) with one another if they are in bloom at the same time. We don't see a lot of brassica oddities though because Cabbage, Kale, Collards and Brussels Sprouts are biennials. If they manage to escape consumption the first year then they have to overwinter successfully. They take quite a bit of space and time to produce their seed stalks the next summer and by that time the gardener had probably tilled them under!

Toscan Kale really comes into it's own come fall. The plants are towering- nearly three feet and full of the savoyed lanceolate almost black leaves. People stop and stare at our row of Toscan Kale also known as Italian Kale. Black Kale, Dinosaur Kale and Lacinado Blue Kale are all variations. It's a different kind of kale to what most of us are used to. I find it one of the most vigorous. I break off a few of long leaves from each of several plants when I want to cook up a pot of kale. And the flavor, you couldn't ask for anything better during those early winter suppers.

<>The very fringed and curled "Scotch" kales, show some of their inherent genetic diversity, bluegreen, blue, reds and deep greens. Collards are a bit plain but the varieties of Kales are on the rise as tall growing and short varieties as well "Russian" kinds, ornamental and heirlooms are being hybridized and selected for by a new wave of independent breeders. Their beauty is often found garnishing a plate or the salad bar, but what a pity- their hidden beauty is in the storehouse of vitamins and nutrients a plate of these hold for the connoisseur of cooked "greens".

Last Modified:  September, 2007