The Ancient Gardener's Instructor: Dispatches from Wesley Greene
October 10, 2012Kale illustrates the most primitive form of the Brassica clan. The name seems to originate as an alternative pronunciation of “cole” in the northern provinces of the British Isles, coleworts being the mediaeval English name for these open-headed Brassicas. By the 18th century, however, kale was generally understood to refer to varieties of coles imported from the Netherlands. They were also known as borecoles, from the Dutch boerenkool or “peasant’s cabbage.” Borecoles differed from the colewort in having curled and frilled leaves and initially were used only as a garnish as explained in The Compleat Seedsman’s Monthly Calendar (1738), “Curl’d Coleworts, or Curl’d Worts, is a Sort of cole with jagged cut Leaves, strip’d with many Colours; it serves to garnish Dishes, but is never boil’d or eaten, that ever I heard of.”
By the middle of the 18th century there were several varieties and colors of borecole, but the most popular form was called Scotch kale, a name it retains to this day. The 18th-century plant was quite a bit larger than the modern variety as related in The Gardeners Kalendar (1777), “Bore-cole, or, as it is often called Scotch-Kale, is a very useful plant . . . there are two sorts of it, the brown and the green. The plants run up with very long stems, sometimes three, four, or five feet high.” The modern Scotch kale is seldom taller than 18 inches with us, unless in flower.We start our kales from seed sown directly in the garden in the beginning of September. For the best quality plants the emergent seedlings must be thinned to stand at least one foot apart. This is accomplished in several thinnings and the gardener will find the job much less tedious, and as well as less annoying to the remaining plants, if the surplus seedlings are removed with a scissors rather than being pulled from betwixt the plants that are to remain. From this sowing both a fall and spring crop can be expected.
A complete explanation of kales, coleworts and collards may be found in Vegetable Gardening the Colonial Williamsburg Way, 18th Century Methods for Today’s Organic Gardeners (Rodale Press).