The Ancient Gardener's Instructor: Dispatches from Wesley Greene
January 2, 2013We have spoken of the coleworts, which became the American collard, and the cabbage colewort, which replaced the ancient colewort in Europe. The third affiliate of this group of winter greens are the kales and they are the most cold hardy of them all. Kale is simply an alternative pronunciation of cole, originating in the northern part of the British Isles. However, by the 18th century 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 common colewort in having curled and frilled leaves. Initially they were treated as a garnish as was 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 (Brassica oleracea), a name it retains to this day. While this is still the most familiar kale to modern gardeners and shoppers it is rather coarse and bitter and, in agreement with the Monthly Calendar, I believe is best used as an ornament rather than an esculent. The Russo-Siberian kales (Brassica napus) such as Red Russian and Siberian kale are much milder and of a tenderer texture than is the Scotch kale.
A dwarf form of Siberian kale that originated in Tidewater, Virginia is called Hanover Salad and is prized by local gardeners. Another very flavorful heirloom kale that originated in Italy is known as Tuscan Kale (also known as Lacinato, Black Palm or Dinosaur kale). While it is not as cold hardy as Siberian kale it is so mild it may be used raw in a salad and is particularly suited for kale soups.
A complete explanation of winter greens may be found in Vegetable Gardening the Colonial Williamsburg Way, 18th Century Methods for Today’s Organic Gardeners (Rodale Press).