Heirloom Cabbage Varieties
and Other Members of the Brassica Family
April 23, 2013
By William Woys Weaver
Heirloom Vegetable Gardening by William Woys Weaver is the culmination of some thirty years of first-hand knowledge of growing, tasting and cooking with heirloom vegetables. A staunch supporter of organic gardening techniques, Will Weaver has grown every one of the featured 280 varieties of vegetables, and he walks the novice gardener through the basics of planting, growing and seed saving. Sprinkled throughout the gardening advice are old-fashioned recipes — such as Parsnip Cake, Artichoke Pie and Pepper Wine — that highlight the flavor of these vegetables. The following excerpt on heirloom cabbage varieties was taken from chapter 10, "Cabbages."
Buy the brand new e-book of Weaver's gardening classic in the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: Heirloom Vegetable Gardening.
To locate mail order companies that carry these heirloom cabbage varieties, use our Custom Seed and Plant Finder. Check out our collection of articles on growing and harvesting heirloom vegetables in Gardening With Heirloom Vegetables.
A Brief History of Heirloom Cabbage Varieties and Other Brassicas
The January King above is a savoy cabbage that changes color as it grows.
I doubt that the average grocery store shopper is aware that kohlrabies, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, kale, and heading cabbages are all variations of the same plant. Since these vegetables often come to season at different times and are often displayed in separate areas of our markets, it is only natural not to think of them in this unified fashion. Yet the gardener must confront this reality, for when it comes to saving seed, this kinship is crucial.
Many of the vegetables in this book have distinguished genealogies, but none are more complicated than those of the brassicas, owing to the crossing of various forms and the ease with which these plants can be altered through selective cultivation. They are also extremely rich in many of the basic nutrients required by humans; thus their place in the historical kitchen garden was established long, long ago. Unfortunately, since they are biennial, all of the brassicas present special difficulties for the gardener who wants to preserve heirloom varieties. At the outset, I must confess that this problem presented me with many knotty choices, for while there are hundreds of heirloom varieties to choose from, not many of them are as simple to grow as lettuce.
While glancing through the 1867 seed catalog of the Baltimore seedsmen E. Whitman & Sons, I noticed that they pragmatically advised such old standby varieties of cabbage as Early Wakefield, Early York, Ox Heart (a French variety), and Winnigstädt. I have decided to follow this same course at the expense of the more exotic heirlooms that are now surfacing among seed savers. The same may be said of the kales and cauliflowers, and all the other brassicas listed in this section. However, I have tried to build into my selections a certain degree of variety; enough, I believe, that after a few seasons the beginning gardener will know which types are most practical for the garden and which are not. Need I remind my readers that with cabbages, soil is everything, and fertility is all the rest? Good cabbage land must be well manured.
I should point out that all the members of the genus Brassica and the species oleracea trace their genetic origin to northwestern Europe, specifically to the coastal region extending from western France to Holland and including the southern coast of England. This family of vegetables was first cultivated by the ancient Celts, who also gave us our basic cabbage vocabulary. The Celts had several words for cabbages, which in itself implies a high level of cultivation. The Celtic word kol became Kohl in German; kal became kale in English. The Celtic term bresic became brassica in Latin, and kap, a term for heading cabbages, became Kappes in German and cabbage in English.
The Romans knew cabbages well and cultivated a great many varieties. They differentiated three basic types: a crinkled or curly-leafed type equivalent to curly-leafed kale; a smooth-leafed sort similar to open-headed cabbages like Green Glaze; and wild cabbage with small round leaves gathered as a colewort or collard. The Romans also grew cauliflower, which they called cyma, and tall cabbages with large stems like the couve tronchuda or Portugal Cabbage. Descriptions of the old varieties survive in Roman agricultural literature, but without the aid of pictures (which do not survive), it is not possible to form a definite impression about their specific appearance or how they might be related to one another. This is important when discussing heirloom cabbages, because many of them may be much older than documentation suggests. In any case, to me some of the most interesting cabbages from a culinary standpoint are also historically some of the oldest. If I had my choice, I would recommend the English variety known as Vanack. It is an old Sussex and Hampshire cabbage that was preserved in the gardens of the countess of Bridgewater at Ashbridge, Hertfordshire, and in the gardens of the earl of Egremont at Petworth since the middle of the eighteenth century. But alas, seed is not generally available, and so it is with many of the most fascinating cabbages.
Commonly Grown Heirloom Cabbage Varieties
The most commonly grown heirloom members of the cabbage family may be divided into eight cultivated forms, classified in the following manner, according to Hortus Third:
- Cabbages that form heads: Brassica oleracea var. capitata L. American truck farmers usually divide this into the Wakefield group, cabbages with pointed heads, and the Copenhagen group, cabbages that form heads in the shape of round balls. Actually, there is also a third group which includes the drumheads, cabbages with broad, flat heads. One of the best known of the early American varieties in this last group was Large Bergen, also called Great American.
- Savoy cabbages, characterized by blistered or puckered leaves: Brassica oleracea var. bullata. Savoys come in a variety of head shapes, from very loose, leafy heads resembling kale to monstrous drumheads. For flavor, I think the best savoys are the smallest varieties. Savoys are also extremely hardy, more so than many of the other heading cabbages.
- Italian broccoli, asparagus broccoli, sprouting broccoli, and all forms of broccoli that do not form solid heads: Brassica oleracea var. italica Plenck. These are easy to grow, but sensitive to drought and cold weather.
- Portugal cabbages or couve tronchuda, cabbages with thick stems used like celery: Brassica oleracea var. tronchuda. There are many subvarieties. In the St. Gall cloister garden (A.D. 820) in Switzerland, a bed was set aside for cabbages (caulas) of a sort similar to the tronchuda group.
- Kohlrabi: Brassica oleracea var. gongylodes L.
- Broccoli and cauliflowers: Brassica oleracea var. botrytis L.
- Brussels sprouts: Brassica oleracea var. gemmifera. This group is the most recent historically, for it did not appear until 1785.
- Cow cabbages, tree kales, collards, and rosette-headed kales: Brassica oleracea var. acephala. Most of the oldest forms of cabbage belong to this group
Brassica Seed Saving Advice
When purchasing seeds, be certain that the packages are clearly marked according to botanical group. There are kales and cabbages from Asia which do not belong to the oleracea species. It is important to know this when growing out plants for seed-saving purposes, and it is even better to check a reliable reference if there is any question. I have purchased seed from seed companies only to discover that the contents were not properly identified; there is no excuse for this.
Most of the heirloom varieties presently available date from the nineteenth century, one of the exceptions being Early York, an English variety introduced from Flanders in the early eighteenth century. A strain called Large York was once grown extensively around Philadelphia; its equivalent among the Pennsylvania Dutch was Large Early Schweinfurt, a Palatine variety introduced in the eighteenth century, but not available commercially in this country until almost a hundred years later. Even Chinese cabbages have been known in the West for a much greater length of time than many gardeners would suppose. The chou chinense (pe-tsai), a member of the genus Brassica, but of the species rapa, and several Chinese mustards were introduced into Europe in 1836. According to an article in Le Bon Jardinier (1839), the seed was brought from China by missionaries. Otherwise, a large portion of the surviving heirlooms are improved strains rather than facsimiles of the original introductions. The difficulty of overwintering cabbages of all sorts for seed-saving purposes has greatly limited the availability of many varieties among seed savers. More reliable is the seed from the small seed houses listed at the back of this book, since several of them specialize in heirloom cabbages. They are able to grow many different varieties under contract, whereas the home gardener must rely on one or two varieties brought to flower at different times—hand pollination is simply out of the question. Serious seed savers might want to refer to J. M. Lupton’s Cabbage and Cauliflower for Profit, first published in 1894, as a useful guide to raising heirloom American cabbages. His article “Development of the Cabbage” in the American Garden (1890, 289–91) is particularly useful for understanding how cabbages were evaluated in the nineteenth century and why some varieties were preserved while others were not.
Storing and Harvesting Cabbage Varieties
Seed saving is compounded by the fact that cabbages are out-pollinating, which means that pollen must be transferred from one plant to another rather than from flower to flower on the same plant. Therefore, many more plants are required to produce seed with a good genetic balance. Ten plants are an advisable minimum. There are several ways to deal with this.
First, whole plants can be dug up, potted, and stored over the winter in a cool shed, cool enough to keep them dormant but not so cold that they freeze. Or, if there is sufficient corn in the garden, save the stalks and bury the cabbages as shown in the old woodcut. The corn stalks form an insulated barrier, especially effective if the cabbages are laid in a shallow pit. Throw sod over the corn or a tarp so that raccoons cannot dig into the hill. In the spring, replant the cabbages and let them bloom for seed.
Second, there is another method that also saves a great deal of space. When harvesting the cabbages, trim them off as close to the head as possible, leaving the stem undamaged. Mark the stems of the plants that produced crops most true to type. Dig up those stems with their roots and store them in damp sand in a Styrofoam ice chest. Put the chest in a cool shed or garage where the stems will not freeze. Planted in the spring, the stems will develop sprouts and flowers. Seed can be saved from these flowers.
Lastly, cabbages can be propagated by cuttings, which eliminates the necessity of saving seed. Select the stems of the best plants and slice them into quarters from top to bottom, making certain that each piece has roots. Dip the roots in hormonal rooting compound and plant in sand in flower pots or in a cold frame. In the spring the cuttings can be planted like seedling cabbages. This process can be continued from year to year, thus perpetuating and increasing the cabbages with the best traits. This technique is especially useful where several varieties are being grown together and there is a definite need to avoid crosses. Cuttings can also be taken from woody stems by slicing across right above the leaf nodes, but this method is tricky and requires experience. Normally, roots will develop at the nodes where sprouts would form. However, if the stems are too green and soft, the cuttings may rot before they take root.
I have used all of these techniques successfully for everything except kohlrabi. I have not attempted it with kohlrabi due to the nature of its root, and frankly, it is much easier to order fresh seed so that I can concentrate on the cabbages that are rare or difficult to obtain. At some point, every gardener must decide which vegetables to perpetuate through seed-saving techniques and which to obtain from seedsmen. It is far better to grow one or two of the oleraceas well than to drown enthusiasm in a baptism of crop failures or strange-looking culinary mules.
Other brassicas treated in this book include rocket, two cresses, and radishes. In general, the seed viability for the cabbages, kales, cauliflowers, and Brussels sprouts listed in the following pages is four to five years. However, I would suggest not saving seed beyond three years. Old seed sometimes produces deformed plants, and weak plants are particularly vulnerable to insects and disease. Formerly, it was common practice among gardeners to plant two-year-old seed, as the Gardener’s Magazine (1828, 246) pointed out: “All the brassica seeds are apt to run when newly saved and early sown.” There seems to be some logic to this.
Heirloom Cabbage Varieties and Other Brassicas
'Black Tuscan Palm Tree' Kale
Brassica oleracea var. acephala
I first stumbled upon this variety of cavolo di Palma in Ottavio Targioni-Tozzetti’s Dizzionario Botanico Italiano (1825, 45–46), curiously wondering to myself whether it could be more impressive than Jersey Cow Cabbage, for surely it does not grow as tall. Later, when I saw the kale in the gardens of the Villa Barbero at Maser high in the hills of the Veneto, I realized immediately that I could not be without it. The Black Tuscan Palm Tree Kale is truly one of the most beautiful kales to grace any kitchen garden. In fact, many gardeners plant it simply for its ornamental merits. There is probably no more spectacular combination than to see this gray-black kale interplanted with vivid green Silesia lettuce, although the Venetian lettuce called cappuccio ubriacona frastagliata (“drunken woman frizzy-headed”) will do its own to create a carnival effect—and ever so Italian.
The Black Tuscan Palm Tree Kale dates from the eighteenth century and figures in a number of old Tuscan recipes. Prepared like chard, it has an affinity for olive oil and shallots, and goes very well with grilled Chioggia sea pumpkin. It is best when chopped, because the old leaves can be stringy; in fact concentrate on the very young leaves at the top, for they are the most tender. The same may be said for its German counterpart, Lerchenzungen Grünkohl (larks-tongue kale), a frizzy dark green kale with long, narrow leaves similar in shape to the Tuscan variety. It is also medium in height, and therefore the two can be planted together for a stunning visual effect. The German variety is completely winter hardy in Pennsylvania; in fact frost improves the flavor. The Tuscan kale, unfortunately, is extremely tender and will not overwinter in areas where the ground freezes. Even heavy frosts seem to damage it. Plants must be dug up and stored in a cool shed over the winter; I simply move the ones designated for seed saving into my greenhouse.
Since the Tuscan kale grows 2 to 3 feet tall, even higher where the ground is particularly rich, it should be spaced about 3 feet apart in order to develop a good “palm tree” shape. It can also be planted as a single specimen. The slate gray, crinkled leaves are long and narrow, often 24 inches long, and gently drooping; thus the plants require elbow room. The German sort is somewhat shorter and therefore looks better when planted in front of the Tuscan kale. Cabbage worms do not seem to bother either variety, but caterpillars of other butterfly species do. More of a problem are finches and sparrows, which sit on the plants and peck out holes in the leaves. They can leave a handsome bed of kales looking sad and shredded in a matter of days. Bird netting is the only method I have found to deal with this.
'Borecole' or 'Dwarf German' Kale
Brassica oleracea var. acephala
A vegetable with a long history in the United States, Dwarf German Kale first arrived here with Pennsylvania Dutch settlers in the early eighteenth century. However, one of the first historical references thus far uncovered appeared in the correspondence between London plant collector Peter Collinson and John Bartram, the Philadelphia botanist and nurseryman. In March 1735 Collinson sent Bartram seeds for “Winter Green Cole” and “Brown Cole,” the latter a strain also known as Deep Purple Kale. Collinson’s seed had come to him directly from Germany, where the varieties were known as Grünkohl and Braunkohl respectively. The extremely winter-hardy green variety was generally planted in September in order to overwinter and provide greens or sprouts in early spring. A century and a half later American horticulturist Charles Parnell wrote an article on “Sprouts, or Dwarf German Greens” for the September 1885 issue of Vick’s Illustrated Monthly Magazine. In it he described the extensive truck farm industry in the vicinity of New York City devoted entirely to this vegetable.
Whether or not the plant we know today is genetically identical to its eighteenth-century ancestor may be difficult to prove, but visually it is identical to the kales depicted in paintings and woodcuts of that period. The plant is short, about 2 feet tall, with bluish green, frilly leaves. As a garden vegetable, it is one of the most reliable and easy to grow of all the brassicas in this book. For culinary purposes the greens may be treated like spinach, but unless chopped or shredded, they are really too coarse to be served raw in salads. They are perfectly suited to the type of Pennsylvania Dutch casserole salads called Schales, which are heated slightly to tenderize the ingredients. Also raised by the Pennsylvania Dutch was a related kale called Mosbacher Crünkohl, resembling a cross between curly green kale and couve tronchuda or Portugal cabbage. It is 2 to 2 1/2 feet tall with large, broad, yellow-green leaves. It tastes like broccoli.
For an early harvest, seeds may be planted 4 to 6 weeks before the last frost, about the same time for planting onion sets and potatoes. Otherwise, seeds may be started indoors in flats, the seedlings hardened off and planted in the garden once the ground has dried out after spring thaw. Fall crops are planted 6 to 8 weeks before the first frost, or even later if plants are intended to overwinter for spring greens and seeds. This kale is so hardy that it does not require winter protection. I have continued to harvest it from right under the snow.
For seed-saving purposes it is important to remember that the flowers are not self-fertile; thus more than one plant is needed to produce seed. I would advise planting 10 plants close together for seed purposes. This will ensure a good level of pollination as well as genetic diversity in the seed. The kale can also be propagated by root cuttings.
The following recipe, translated from Anna May’s Die Kleine New Yorker Köchin (1859, 22), outlines how the kale was prepared in a skillet.
Braunen Kohl zu Kochen (To Cook Kale)
Remove all the leaves so that only the heart with its tiny leaves remain for cooking. Then boil the greens until slightly tender, drain in a colander, and press out the excess liquid. Put a nice piece of butter and a little lard in a skillet, add the kale, and sauté over a high heat, Add salt and chopped onion, and when thoroughly cooked, add a few spoonfuls of bouillon and some sugar. Cover and let this sweat for a few minutes. Also, one can add a few small potatoes cooked in their skins, quartered and browned in a skillet with butter and sugar.
'Brussels Sprouts' (Red)
Brassica oleracea var. gemmifera
Brussels sprouts developed as a mutation of Flanders Kale (chou caulet de Flandre) about 1785; thus this group of cabbages represents the most recent accession to the species. For a long time it was considered the ultimate luxury cabbage for one simple reason: it is extremely difficult to grow. The French prefer large sprouts, the Belgians small ones. The smaller sorts are easier to grow, but I would not recommend Brussels sprouts at all were it not for the fact that some gardeners have extremely good luck with them. Most important, they do not take up much room. This is a vegetable that is mostly vertical, and therefore it can be grown among rows of lettuces, carrots, and other low vegetables. Furthermore, a few good plants will yield an abundant crop, as many as 100 to a plant. Therefore, it is important think of Brussels sprouts in terms of interplanting; they are slow growing and, if planted in a solid patch, will only tie up that portion of the garden for the entire season.
Another problem is that there are really no pre-1900 heirloom Brussels sprout varieties readily available to seed savers. The red variety that I grow was created by crossing an old green variety with Flanders Kale, which happens to be a purple-red. The sprouts are perfectly beautiful miniatures of red cabbages. I made the decision that if I was going to trouble myself with the miseries of coddling Brussels sprouts to perfection, then I wanted something I could not find in a supermarket. That has been my guiding principle, even though I have never had more failures in the garden than with Brussels sprouts.
Raising Brussels sprouts is a study in humility, for they demand much and give little in return unless they are perfect. My failures with Brussels sprouts have only prompted me to keep at it until I got it right. Half the success in gardening is to remain open-minded and turn mistakes into lessons. Leave Brussels sprouts off the list unless you have a serious interest in mastering them. Otherwise, stick to kale.
Brussels sprouts need a very long, mild growing season, and therefore they do much better in parts of the South than in other sections of the country. If seed is sown in northern areas in May for planting in June, there is a chance of a decent harvest by November. In the South, plants can be set out in July, with harvests in December. The sprouts come to crop very quickly and do not linger in their sprout state for very long. If neglected, they will burst, bud out into small shoots, or rot.
To encourage the formation of sprouts, it is necessary to pull off some of the leaves below each sprout so that the energy of the plant is directed into the buds. Cropping the top or head will help with some varieties, but this is itself a culinary delicacy and should not be destroyed, particularly if the plants are being saved for seed. Harvest the largest buds first so that the smaller ones will benefit. Cut the sprouts from the stem neatly, leaving as much of the spur as possible. This precaution will result in a second crop of sprouts. Always keep the plants well watered, but do not fertilize them heavily. If the ground is too rich, the plants will develop large leaves at the expense of the buds. The most common insect pest to attack the sprouts are gray aphids. They are ugly, and they will disfigure the plants quickly. Insecticidal soap will kill them on contact; wood ashes dusted over the plants before a light rain will also work.
Brassica oleracea var. capitata
Because of its diminutive size, this is my favorite heirloom cabbage for small gardens. One of my friends described it as resembling a mammoth Brussels sprout, and I think that is a pretty fair assessment of its appearance. It was introduced in 1868 by James J. H. Gregory of Marblehead, Massachusetts, and was most likely a strain of Copenhagen. Gregory himself described it as having a head “about as round and hard as a cannonball.” The entire cabbage, including outer leaves, grows no larger than 12 inches across, but it is extremely dense and perfect for shredding into coleslaw or sauerkraut. It is usually described as maturing with Winnigstädt, which means that it should be treated as a fall cabbage.
I would suggest planting the seedlings in August; if they are planted in the spring, disaster will ensue. The small heads are so tight that they cannot take a great deal of hot weather and high humidity. They will crack and, if the day is particularly hot, actually burst open. I protected the cabbages with sun screens, and even that did not help. However, Cannonball would probably do very well in areas where the summers are cool. It is such a fine little cabbage, very neatly formed, and deliciously tender when cooked, that it is well worth a trial. Just be certain to keep it well watered.
An assortment of cabbages: Red Drumhead, the small, round-headed Cannonball, and the pointed Winnigstädt cabbage.
'Couve Tronchuda' or 'Portugal' Cabbage
Brassica oleracea var. tronchuda
Some cabbages are difficult to grow, while kales come up like weeds. Portugal cabbage is just plain fun. It is always rewarding because it is showy, there are many varieties to choose from, and the taste is similar to delicate broccoli. I have grown it every year since I have had a garden. I consider it the centerpiece and plan everything else around it. My enthusiasm for it began as a type of ardent curiosity, an archaeological look at a “relic” vegetable. For this family of cabbages is closely related to the Jersey Cow Cabbage and chou de la Sarthe. Therefore, it is a type closely akin to the sorts raised in Western Europe during classical antiquity. It would not look strange on the dining tables of Roman Spain. I thought it would be like cow cabbage when I first planted it, but I was wrong. It has a charm all its own.
I was surprised to learn in the preface to Robert Buist’s Family Kitchen Gardener (1847, v) that this cabbage had been introduced here in the 1820s as a fodder crop, only to be reintroduced again in the late 1840s under its Portuguese name as a new delicacy for daring gourmands. It was originally introduced into England in 1821 from the neighborhood of Braganza in Portugal, only to fail in the English winter, or so the Gardener’s Magazine (1827, 434–35) claimed. Actually the date of introduction is incorrect, and there must have been other factors at work in that failure because as I write this, my Braganza is standing in nearly a foot of snow, untouched by a recent brush with 12°F weather. In any case, much of the seed brought into England at that time was sent via the wine merchants, the same Madeira trade that channeled so many Portuguese and Spanish vegetables into Boston and Philadelphia in the nineteenth century. It was through a similar network that Stephen Switzer first acquired seed in 1728 under the name Coves Murcianus, noting that many English gentlemen had eaten it in Portugal. Unfortunately, he did not report in his Compendious Method (1731, 19) how his experiments with the cabbage fared.
The 1820s reintroduction consisted of two varieties, a tall one about 2 feet in height called Braganza and a “dwarf” sort called Murciana, growing about 18 inches in height. This latter variety was the same trialed by Switzer nearly a century earlier. All of the varieties of couve tronchuda are characterized by large, spreading, ribbed leaves. The cabbages form no heads; rather it is the rib part of the leaf and the heart or top of the stem that are eaten. The Portuguese term tronchuda means “having a great stalk,” which indeed it does, although the bottom part is tough and woody. The different varieties are distinguished from one another by their leaf color, shape, habit of growth, and texture when cooked. The Manteiga is buttery, while the Pencuda Espanhola forms a loose head.
Both the Braganza and Murciana varieties were introduced into the United States in 1847 by-Boston seedsman Joseph Breck. The Horticulturalist (April 1848, 464) published an article on this “new” vegetable, including suggestions on how it should be cooked. If couve tronchuda remained out of the mainstream kitchen garden in this country, at least it had adherents in the Portuguese communities of New England. In his Cape Cod cookbook Vittles for the Captain (1941, 14), N. M. Halper observed that the Portuguese who settled in the sea towns along the Massachusetts coast were avid cultivators of couve tronchuda and that it was found “in every Provincetown garden.” Halper published a recipe for kale soup using this vegetable, plus several other Portuguese-style dishes. I find that the hearts and young tender leaves are excellent when steamed (10 to 12 minutes). The large, old outer leaves are tough but may be used for preparing an excellent soup stock.
Seed should be started in late May for a fall crop or in August for an overwintering crop. The spring greens are the best. The plant thrives in cool, showery weather and can be grown as a winter cabbage in mild parts of the country. A temporary cold snap does not injure it as much as repeated freezing and thawing. If grown in the open, it should be protected from dry winter winds. Since many of the varieties are tender, it is probably better to dig them up for winter storage rather than risk loss. Only by trial and error is it possible to determine which will do best in a particular microclimate.
'Early Jersey Wakefield' Cabbage
Brassica oleracea var. capitata
Early Wakefield, an English cabbage from Yorkshire, was preceded by Large Wakefield, a cauliflower introduced in this country in 1843. American gardeners were naturally confused by these two very similar names. Worse, when Early Wakefield was planted, it degenerated into about twelve subvarieties, few of which had qualities suited to our needs and climate. The much-heralded English import became a curse.
However, a German truck gardener in northern New Jersey perfected an early, uniform strain from Wakefield plants, and Peter Henderson eventually obtained rights to it. This became the Early Jersey Wakefield that he made famous in later editions of his Gardening for Profit (1865). Seed was released commercially in 1868. This is a cabbage born of seedsmen’s hyperbole, only to prove itself over time to be much better than its creators could have imagined. Today it is one of the classic American heirloom varieties. Originally raised almost exclusively in Bergen and Hudson counties, New Jersey, the cabbage and its center of cultivation eventually shifted to Long Island.
Although it was developed as a field cabbage for commercial culture, Early Jersey Wakefield is particularly well suited for small gardens due to its size. And because it is hardy, it may be raised successfully in USDA zones 5 and 6, but it is not recommended for the South unless planted as in the fall as a winter cabbage. Better for southern gardeners to plant Charleston Wakefield, a variety developed by Henderson in 1892 specifically for the South. In Pennsylvania, large healthy plants often overwinter without protection; Early Jersey Wakefield thrives best, however, when cultivated over the winter in cold frames.
The head of the cabbage is heart-or cone-shaped, forming well-rounded point surrounded by copious pale green leaves. The leaves are sometimes tinged with pink on their “sunny” side. The harvested heads generally weigh 2 to 3 pounds. The young greens make excellent collard; in fact, I prefer cooking the cabbage before it forms complete heads. Charleston Wakefield grows somewhat larger, with more widely spreading leaves, usually a dark green in color. Harvested heads may weigh 4 to 6 pounds.
'Green Glaze' Collards
Brassica oleracea var. acephala
When we think of collards in this country, we immediately associate them with the South. Many varieties of collards were developed there, and names like Georgia and North Carolina Blue Stem were once quite popular at the turn of this century. Yet the collard was not originally unique to one region of the country, nor was it a specialized type of cabbage. The term is a dialect corruption of colewort, which in the seventeenth century was applied to small kales or to cabbages in their leafy state before they began forming heads. Coleworts were usually the thinnings pulled from the garden to make room for the stronger plants. In the 1702 cookbook of Gulielma Penn (1966, 16), there is a recipe for a beef “pudding” that is made by stuffing a colewort leaf with chopped beef, then boiling it.
By the latter part of the eighteenth century, distinct colewort varieties evolved in this country through accidental crossing between kales and cabbages. Most of these varieties never earned commercial names because they were highly localized in distribution and generally viewed as a poverty food. One of the oldest to survive, however, is the Green Glaze collard, a colewort that evolved out of the Green Glaze cabbage introduced in 1820 by David Landreth of Philadelphia. This collard is distinguished by its color, which is bright lemony green, and the waxy surface of its leaf. This waxy surface forms a natural protection against cabbage worms because they cannot chew through it. As a result, this is also one of the few cabbages that is generally insect free, although the harlequin cabbage bug (a red-and-black beetle) will attack it in the fall.
The mature plants grow about 1 1/2 feet tall and form loose, leafy heads much like lettuce. The plants are tender in regions where winters are severe and therefore must be overwintered for seed-saving purposes. In the North this means digging up the plants and storing them in a root cellar, or potting them up and maintaining them in a cold frame or cool greenhouse. They may be replanted in March in order to have them bloom in April or early May. The spring plants will also produce a good crop of small sprouts.
Collards are best gathered when young or in the fall after nipped by frost. The following recipe is taken from Mrs. E. R. Tennent’s House-Keeping in the Sunny South (1885, 89).
Jowl and Greens Collards Recipe
Put one and a half pounds of meat, or half a good-sized jowl in three quarts of water. When it begins to boil skim carefully: in two Hours add the greens, a pinch of soda, and a tablespoonful of salt. When done skin the jowl, remove to a dish, pile the greens around it, and garnish with slices of hard boiled eggs.
'January King' Cabbage
Brassica oleracea var. bullata
The American Horticultural Annual (1869, 134) remarked that “no family garden is complete without its patch of Savoys for the table.” And yet savoy cabbages were never grown in the United States as extensively as in Europe, perhaps because their tenderness precludes their culture in many parts of the country. Nevertheless, I stand by my opinion that they are the best sort of heading cabbage, and with few close competitors. The Pennsylvania Dutch always considered the savoy cabbage the very finest sort for sauerkraut, and to serve savoy in any form was always a compliment to guests.
On the other hand, the field of heirloom savoys is not crowded even though many of the names are today quite unfamiliar. Amelia Simmons (1796, 14)—bless her good taste—listed two varieties that were more or less perennial favorites with those Americans who grew them. One was the green savoy, “with the richest crinkles… it will last thro’ the winter.” The other was yellow savoy, “next in rank, but will not last long; all Cabbages will mix, and participate of other species, like Indian Corn.” The old word was cavort, and indeed, Amelia Simmons was one of the first writers in this country to understand the sex life of cabbages. “This is new, but a fact,” she wrote, and I salute her for this frank observation.
The Peale family of Philadelphia included savoy cabbages in many of their paintings, I am convinced out of respect for their status among cooks, for they chose to depict prize-taking specimens. Bernard M’Mahon’s 1815 seed catalog listed only two savoys, the yellow and green varieties advocated by Amelia Simmons. These two varieties remained more or less the American standards until the Civil War.
By the 1890s, American seedsmen were listing as many as seven varieties developed here, one of the finest being Marvin’s Savoy, introduced in 1891. Unfortunately, most of the old varieties are now difficult to locate; a large portion of them are extinct. Personally, I prefer a late Victorian variety from England called January King, which is considered a semi-savoy, the secret I think to its hardiness.
The heads of January King are small and dense, weighing more than a pound. They keep well under refrigeration, as long as two months. The small size of the plants makes this variety excellently suited for the kitchen garden. The leaf coloration is terrific and seems to change daily. The overall color is blue-green, but there are dapples of true turquoise, blushes of purple on the outer leaves, and streaks of violet on some of the leaf stems. Sometimes I think it is too beautiful to harvest, it should just sit there and preen in the sun.
I plant seed in December in my greenhouse. The cabbage thrives in cool greenhouses and makes a good collard. In March I move the best plants to the garden, thus providing myself with a harvest in June. For fall harvests, seed is planted in May. In England the plants are overwintered in the open for harvests in February. Frost (not a hard freeze) mellows the flavor. For seed-saving purposes, seed must be planted in May so that the plants may be vernalized in November, then taken into storage for the winter. In spite of his name, January King is not king of January weather in this country. He needs protection.
'Kohlrabi' (Purple and White Vienna)
Brassica oleracea var. gongylodes
There are only two kohlrabies that I would recommend for the small garden, the Purple Vienna and the White Vienna. Both of these were considered “breakthrough” varieties, since they were so superior to the sorts that had been grown up to the time of their introduction. They were illustrated in color in the Album Vilmorin, the purple variety in 1863 and the white one in 1869, which only added to their acclaim. In 1773 Benjamin Franklin sent John Bartram seeds for a coarse variety of “Cabbage Turnip,” recommending it as a fodder crop for cattle. There are several old large-rooted varieties that would serve this purpose, but the two Vienna sorts, dating from the 1840s, are small and delicate. When young, they can even be eaten raw.
There is no difference between the two except in color. The purple one is shown here, at its peak of perfection for harvesting. The culture is the same as that for cabbage, except that kohlrabies can be planted much closer together, about 8 inches apart. I interplant them with leeks, so that as the kohlrabies finish in June, the leeks grow and fill the space. Kohlrabies are best planted early, as soon as the threat of frost has passed. They mature quickly and will turn woody in hot weather. They can be planted again in mid-August for a fall harvest, but should be gathered before a hard freeze. Freezing will split them.
Kohlrabies are normally peeled before they are cooked. They can be used like turnips, except that the flavor is much more delicate. But why waste the peelings? The Pennsylvania Dutch spread them on paper and dry them. Once dry, they can be stored in airtight jars and used during the winter to make soup. Certainly! Pour boiling water over the dried peelings and let them reconstitute. Simmer until the stock is completely flavored by the kohlrabi peels (about 25 minutes), then strain and discard the peels. This makes an excellent base stock for vegetarian soups.
'Jersey Cow' Cabbage or 'Walking Stick' Cabbage
Brassica oleracea var. acephala
Perhaps my partiality for this unusual cabbage stems from the fact that it is the first cabbage I ever grew. Back in the early 1970s, I obtained seed from J. Stevens Cox of St. Peter Port on the island of Guernsey in response to a little pamphlet he sent me outlining the history of the cabbage. I was naive enough at the time to imagine that I was one of the first to grow it in this country. In fact, it has been grown here off and on since the 1840s. Yet I will say that growing the cabbage made me keenly aware for the first time that there was truly such a thing as an heirloom vegetable outside my own world of Pennsylvania. In one hand I had a packet of seeds, in the other a monograph providing its pedigree. My expectations of the cabbage were not disappointed either, for purely by luck, I planted it in the spring prior to one of the mildest winters on record. It overwintered in the ground, and by the time it blossomed the following June, I had a forest of cabbages nearly 16 feet tall. The neighbors were impressed.
One of the earliest American references to this cabbage surfaced in 1841, when seed was sent from France to a Mr. Page, then postmaster of Philadelphia. He shared seed with several interested gardeners who agreed to trial it. It overwintered and flowered, but only grew 2 feet tall, much to their disappointment. I suspect that Page’s seed was misidentified. It was probably the Sarthe Cow Cabbage (chou fourrager de la Sarthe), a related variety that is much shorter in height.
Parker and Cox (1970) outlined the general history of the cabbage in their monograph. The cabbage was introduced into England in 1827 when the comte de Puysage sent seed from La Vendée, and the seed was divided among six horticulturists, who then trialed it. In their original habitat the cabbages grow from 12 to 20 feet tall owing to the mildness of the climate. Elsewhere, they generally grow only half that size. The cabbage was initially introduced with the idea of promoting it as a fodder crop because as the plant grows, the bottom leaves are pulled off and fed to cows. Sixty plants were considered sufficient fodder for one cow over the course of three or four years. By pulling off the lower leaves, the plant is encouraged to grow upward, which is how it is made to attain such heights. James J. H. Gregory of Marblehead, Massachusetts, advertised seed for the cabbage in the American Agriculturist (February 1868, 73) specifically as a fodder crop for cattle. Victorian gardeners did not consider it dignified food for humans, but prior to that age of overwrought sensibilities, humans did indeed eat it.
The young leaves are quite tender and can be cooked like collards. In the spring, the stalks send off side shoots that are particularly tender. On the islands of Jersey and Guernsey, farmers make a stew with it called soup à choux or soupe à la graisse, which is composed of the cabbage, a piece of slab bacon, and potatoes. Parsnips or turnips sometimes take the place of the potatoes. The cow cabbage makes a good stewing cabbage, and the heart or small leaf head at the top is by far the most delicate part.
It is known today that this type of cabbage is quite ancient, similar in many ways to the cabbages grown by the Celtic peoples residing on both shores of the English Channel. Furthermore, this coastal region lies at the center of the genetic home of all the cabbages of the oleracea species. The farmers on the Channel Islands even used the long, woody stalks as purlins in the roofs of their cottages. Around these they tied their thatch, a practice dating from Roman times and confirmed by archaeology. The ancient Gauls and Britons also baked hearth breads by wrapping them in the large leaves. Jersey Cow Cabbage is excellent for this application; I have experimented with it many times.
Only on rare occasions have I had the cabbage overwinter in the open. Our winters are usually too severe for this. Gardeners wishing to overwinter it for seed purposes will succeed if the plants are dug up in the early fall—select six to eight of the best—and potted. They can be overwintered in a cool shed. As long as the stems do not freeze and are kept alive, the plants will push new growth in the spring. It is not necessary to worry about leaves that may drop off over the winter; rather, it is better that the plants be held in a dormant state. Once replanted in the spring, the stems will revive. It is normal for this cabbage to attain its maximum height the second year and then flower in the third. This may mean that some gardeners will want to raise it exclusively in tubs rather than dig it up two years running. The seed pods are attractive to birds and may need protection under netting in order to properly dry on the plants. Do not throw away the stems when the plants die. They are tough and, when seasoned and dried, make excellent walking sticks. Craftsmen on the Channel Islands still turn out walking sticks for the tourists. If this sounds like too much work, then at least use the stems for bean poles; they are much sturdier than most bamboos.
'Purple Cape Cauliflower'
Brassica oleracea var. botrytis
With so many farmers raising first-rate cauliflower only a few miles away from where I live, I thought I had no incentive to grow it. However, the unusual varieties show up only rarely at market, and the heirlooms not at all. If I want something different, I must grow it myself and out of this necessity (or perverse desire) I have undertaken to raise a number of cauliflowers. Long ago, the American Garden (1889, 58) remarked that “cauliflower is not an easy success.” As much as I would like to see heirloom varieties preserved, I cannot see much future for the old varieties of cauliflower. The plant is too demanding of labor. It thrives in wet, heavy soil and needs constant watering during hot weather. In order to obtain beautiful heads, the plants must be tied up as shown in the old woodcut. This requires a commitment to hand labor that is not profitable unless carried out on a large scale. In the nineteenth century, Suffolk County on Long Island was well known as the “Cauliflower County,” and from there the very best cauliflowers grown in this country originated. Today, the low price of California cauliflower on the open market is largely due to the fact that it has come to us soaked in chemicals that have allowed the producers to shortcut the old cultural methods. Cauliflower was a vegetable created by hands. It was a vegetable luxury, like a fine piece of furniture, or a hand-woven cloak.
A number of heirloom cauliflowers are still extant, but not too many of them are generally available. I think that Purple Cape, developed in South Africa in the eighteenth century, or perhaps even earlier, is one of those old varieties that may be counted on to yield crops with exquisite flavor. The variety first surfaced in 1808, when it was introduced into England from South Africa by Marmaduke Dawnay, who first cultivated it in Surrey. Seeds procured in Italy produced the same variety; so there is an argument as to where it originally evolved. George Lindley mentioned it in his 1831 garden book, and in 1843 it is listed among the new cauliflowers recently introduced into this country in Charles Hovey’s Magazine of Horticulture (9:98). Do not forget that it was competing at the time with Metcalf’s New Pink, Large Wakefield, and Hyatt’s Cream. None of these have survived the test of time with grace. We will leave off discussion of Green Cape and Early Purple, since these varieties surfaced like bubbles on the lake of good eating, only to disappear before chefs had an adequate time to record their glories.
I prefer to recommend Purple Cape because it is hardier than the rest, and I am not embarrassed by its unusual shade. Soil usually determines the final color, but white it is not. I would call it a greenish bronze-purple, shifting to rose, most of which fades when cooked. It does not cook a clear white, hardly a problem when mixed with other ingredients, but this lack of bleached whiteness was viewed years ago as a mark against it, since everything had to look good in béchamel. For the aficionados of white-white cauliflower, allow me to suggest Boston Market, a strain of the French variety called Half Early Paris (chou-fleur demi-dur de Paris). It may seem amusing today, but in the 1840s many American gardeners had no idea what a cauliflower was, let alone how to grow one. Robert Buist was obliged to describe it in his Family Kitchen Gardener (1858, 44) as having “a white head, very similar to a basin rounded full of the curd which is commonly called Cottage Cheese.”
Cauliflowers were grown by wealthy Americans during the early nineteenth century, and to them we owe its cultivation in this country. Gregory Lee, gardener to C. J. Wolbert, Esquire, of Frankford (now part of Philadelphia) wrote an article on his technique for raising cauliflowers that appeared in the New Genesee Farmer (1840, 9). Essentially, Lee planted seed broadcast in September, moved the best seedlings to a cold frame in October, and the following April planted them in the garden. By the end of May he began harvesting cauliflowers twice the size of those grown for fall harvesting. His technique works. It works brilliantly in my climate, but it is also labor intensive, and I am not convinced that it is economical. Perhaps that was the point entirely, for in old cookbooks, those whole heads of poached cauliflower brought to table with much fanfare were implicit metaphors of luxury. Most of the foods we eat today have lost this kind of symbolism.
'Red Drumhead' or 'Roter Trummel' Cabbage
Brassica oleracea var. capitata
Red cabbages were harvested in the fall and used for pickling. At one time they were as much a part of the American Christmas as cranberries. Today, they are available most of the year and the varieties offered have been bred for other uses, primarily for shredding in salads. One of the oldest of the red cabbages raised here was Red Dutch, which is still available. It dates from the eighteenth century; in fact, it may even date from the late seventeenth century, since cabbages very much like it have been identified in Dutch still life paintings from the 1600s. I find it rather coarse unless used in pickling; it is perfect when reconstructing eighteenth-century recipes, and it is one of those hardy sorts of cabbage that manage to produce year after year. However, I prefer Red Drumhead.
I grow it because it does exceptionally well in the region around Philadelphia, and I happen to like the sight of the purple-red plants in the garden. They change the shade and intensity of their colors as the sun moves through the sky, sometime rose, sometimes blushed with deep blue. Added to their physical beauty is one very practical consideration: cabbage worms do not bother red cabbages as much as the green sorts. The worms that do appear are easy to spot because their camouflage is their cabbage-green color, which fails them entirely on Red Drumhead. This variety was introduced from Germany in the early 1860s from the seed firm of Frederick Wilhelm Wendel of Erfurt. In many areas of the country, it replaced Red Dutch owing to its better adaptation to hot weather. If planted too early, however, it may bolt, especially during a hot spell. For an October harvest, I would suggest the end of April or the middle of May for setting out the seedlings. Every year I plant at a different time because nothing of late has been “normal.” Instinct, I guess, is the best rule.
Red Drumhead forms a large, round, flat head. It was bred to be dense and easy to grate in the old-style cabbage graters, the sort with a wooden box that slid back and forth over the blade. The shape of the cabbage fit into these graters better and with less waste than with small round heads. I have rarely bought seed that has produced many heads true to type, and while this might be discouraging to the perfectionist, it can be easily remedied by saving seed from only those plants that produce good heads. Save the stumps to produce the seed. Or better, take graftings from those root stumps and use them exclusively for the next crop. This will increase pure seed dramatically.
One of the earliest writings on the cultivation of sea kale appeared in the form of a paper read by John Maher before the London Horticultural Society in 1805. It was eventually published in the Society’s Transactions (1812, 13–20) and was rather detailed in its discussion of the plant and its treatment as a vegetable. However, by that time seed for sea kale was already being sold in the United States, and a number of well-to-do Americans were raising it. Although it is a hardy perennial, the technique for transforming it into edible shoots in the early spring requires considerable labor. As Meehan’s Monthly (July 1892, 109) pointed out many decades later, the “trouble of blanching is why it is so seldom seen on American tables.” From a commercial standpoint, it is not profitable in this country, and for this reason it was generally raised only in households that employed gardeners. In short, it was a culinary status symbol and remains so, albeit a very attractive one.
The plant is native to the coast of England and Ireland, and until the eighteenth century, It was foraged from the wild rather than cultivated in gardens. The kale grows along beaches just beyond the high-tide line. During the winter it is often buried under drifting sand, and in this manner the new spring shoots are blanched. Because these pale white shoots came into season long before asparagus and other garden vegetables, usually in February and March, they were considered a great delicacy. English grocers found that they could realize a handsome profit by selling them, providing an economic motivation to bring the plant under cultivation and increase production.
By the 1760s sea kale was being raised in the neighborhood of Dublin, and by the late eighteenth century market gardeners around London began growing it for sale. Several methods evolved regarding its culture, the “Bath method” considered one of the best and least expensive. Kale raised at Bath was thought to be the best in England. Gardeners discovered that by growing the kale on ground sloping gently toward the sun, the plants grew more vigorously. The soil was double dug and mixed with plenty of rotted manure. Plants were buried under leaves in wooden frames at least two feet deep. This ensured that the plants were covered deeply enough to keep the shoots from reaching the light. The alternate method was to bury the plants under pottery cloches. This was considered uneconomical for commercial purposes, but many private gardeners preferred it. Thomas Jefferson used this method at Monticello, ordering specially made cloches from a potter in Richmond. Reproductions of these cloches can be purchased from the garden center at Monticello.
The most important point in raising sea kale is that the ground must be well drained where it is planted. It will not grow where water stands on it for any length of time, in spite of its maritime origins. I raise my sea kale in a bed raised up over a two-foot layer of sand, where it imagines that it is growing on a beach and is quite content. I feed it occasionally with fish emulsion and scatter sea salt around it in the spring. I think the salt improves the flavor of the buds, but this is not something everyone can taste. To me the flavor is most pronounced when the kale is accompanied by a very crisp white wine.
Plants are generally started from seed and should be transplanted to the site where they are to grow, spacing them about 24 inches apart. The kale looks a bit like rhubarb except that the leaves are pale gray. A light covering of straw in the winter is sufficient protection in northerly regions of the country. Some gardeners raise it only for ornament in landscaping. For culinary purposes, however, the plants must be covered in the fall. Large plastic flowerpots will work just as well as pottery cloches, but they should be well anchored with a brick or stone on each one to keep them from blowing over in a winter wind. Furthermore, the new shoots are strong and might tip the pots over.
The Bath method of dressing sea kale was also supposed to be the best. The shoots were poached 20 minutes, then served in bundles on toast with white sauce. An American recipe from Mrs. Parker’s Complete Housekeeper (1890, 227) handled it a little differently.
Sea Kale Recipe
Pick and soak in cold water. Drain and shake. Put in very little boiling water; when tender take up, put in a saucepan with butter, cream, salt and pepper. Let simmer. Dish up, pour over melted butter and lay poached eggs on top.
I forego the cream and butter and poach it with stewing oysters and bits of smoked sturgeon. A few shreds of chervil root and the zest of bitter orange; this makes me happy.
Incidentally, sea kale has a near relative in Crambe cordifolia, often called giant baby’s breath. It blooms in June and July on imposing 8-to-10-foot stems. Sea kale likewise has an impressive flower, which is highly fragrant and can be used as an accent in landscaping.
'Winnigstädt' or 'Winnigstedt' Cabbage
Brassica oleracea var. capitata
The particulars about the introduction of this cabbage into the United States are thus far not well documented, although it appears as early as 1864 in American seed catalogs. It is known, however that this variety or a cabbage very similar to it was imported in the eighteenth century under the general rubric of Brunswick cabbage. Winnigstedt, the town after which this variety is named, is situated in the German state of Braunschweig, and many immigrants came to this country from that area of Germany following the American Revolution. The cabbage was raised for many years among the Pennsylvania Dutch before it was noticed commercially by our seedsmen. The Germans in this country planted it in June and raised it almost exclusively as a fall cabbage for sauerkraut. Unfortunately, it was not well adapted to some sections of the United States where Germans settled; thus Philadelphia seedsman David Landreth bred it with American varieties to develop a more acclimated strain.
Landreth also bred Winnigstädt to create a similar Pennsylvania German variety called Früher Kegel, a name usually translated as Early Cone, or Early Cone-Shaped. Unfortunately for Landreth, the name created an inadvertent pun, since Kegel is also Pennsylvania Dutch slang for an illegitimate baby. Not too many seedsmen would want to call a promising new cabbage “early bastard”; I am sure the old German farmers had fun with that one. Tall, narrow, wrapped into a point, it resembled Early Sugar Loaf, a variety resembling romaine lettuce with ashy blue leaves mentioned by Boston seedsman John Russell in 1828 and by English garden book author George Lindley in 1831.
Winnigstädt is a large, glossy dark green cabbage resembling Jersey Wakefield, but is better suited to field culture than to kitchen gardens. It grows best in loose sandy soils. Yet for family use ten or fifteen plants will certainly suffice for making a batch of kraut, since the heads are large and very dense. Like Early Jersey Wakefield, the head of this variety is pointed, usually ending in a small twist. The outer leaves of the plants may spread anywhere from 3 to 4 feet across, and therefore require a good deal of space. If the cabbage has a weakness, I would list at the top its attractiveness to cabbage worms. They get down inside the head, where they go undetected and eat it out from the center. For this reason, it is important to monitor this cabbage more than any of the others listed in this book.
The flavor of the raw cabbage is almost sweet, thus it makes very good coleslaw and raw salads. Of course, next to savoy, it is one of the finest cabbages for sauerkraut and any sort of cabbage pickles. I place it on a par with the Quintal d’Alsace, an Alsatian fall cabbage introduced to this country in 1868. Quintal is also good for sauerkraut. Both varieties are excellent with braised duck and recipes using white wine.
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Photos and Illustrations Courtesy William Woys Weaver.