A "Flower" That's a VegetableA fresh and showy fall plant that never fails to elicit conversation, ornamental kale (sometimes called ornamental cabbage or flowering kale) differs from garden kale only in that it is bred purely for its fanciful leaves. Kale shares the classification Brassica oleracea with its cousins: cabbage, broccoli, collard greens, and cauliflower.
Kale is a cabbage that produces leaves in a tight rosette, rather than forming a head. The ornamental types are technically all kale, but are conventionally divided into two types: those with deeply incised and frilly leaves are considered ornamental kale, while those with flat, round leaves are sometimes referred to as ornamental cabbage. Actually, “flowering” kale is a misnomer since the plants are grown not for their flowers, which are insignificant, but for their bright leaves which resemble a giant ruffled flower. Ornamental kale grows to about 18 to 24 inches high and as wide.
The Long History of Kale
Kale is an ancient vegetable originating in the Mediterranean region. It was an especially important food source in colder areas of the world because of its resistance to frost. Kale was such essential part of the diet of the people of Scotland that kitchen gardens were known as “kaleyards”, and “kail” was used as a generic term for “dinner”. A Scot who was “off his kail” was too sick to eat. “Cauld kale het up” was a common phrase referring not literally to leftovers, but to an old story being told again. Kale also plays a role in the cooking of Scandinavia and Holland, and in some parts of Germany kale is celebrated in an annual festival where a “kale king” is crowned.
Kale as a food has enjoyed something of a resurgence. It is high in nutrients such as beta-carotene, vitamins A, K, and C, and qualifies as a “super food” due to its role as an anti-inflammatory.
The ornamental varieties we see today were selected and bred by the Japanese, and the plants first appeared in seed catalogs in the 1930s. The inner leaves can be white to creamy yellow, pink, rose, or violet, while the outer leaves are in shades of blue, green and gray. The wrinkled edges of the leaves create an ornate ruffled effect. Beyond its unusual appearance, one of the best features of the ornamental kale is that the leaf color actually intensifies after the first light frost and lasts up to snowfall. Kale can withstand temperatures down to 5 degrees, as long as the decrease is gradual. Depending on where you live, you will be able to enjoy the flowering kale well into frosty weather, if not all winter long.
Choosing and Using Ornamental KaleSome varieties of ornamental kale that you might find at your garden center:
• Nagoya series, which are round with ruffled leaves and a center of bright pink, lavender, or yellow-green to cream
• Pigeon series, which look like flowering heads of cabbage, have a flat-head appearance and can be single or triple-headed
• Peacock series which are upright and have a fan-shaped appearance.
Although they are not bred for taste or tenderness, the ornamental varieties can be used as a garnish. If you do so, take care to ensure that the leaves have not been treated with pesticides.
Ornamental kale for fall display can be started from seed in summer, or purchased from garden centers in September and October. The advantage of purchasing them in fall is that you can choose colors to your liking for use in the garden or containers. Look for plants that are compact and colorful, with a good head diameter size. With ornamental kale, what you see is pretty much what you’re going to get, so keep in mind that if you buy a small plant, it’s going to stay that size. Ornamental kale is especially nice in pots close to the house, where you and your guests can appreciate the brilliant colors close up. Plant them so you can peer into their fascinating centers--on a slope, on a porch or deck, or at the front of the garden as an attractive edging. In the garden they’ll probably look best in groups of three or five. If you are only purchasing one or two, try them in pots as a replacement for those worn-out summer bloomers.
Ornamental kale requires cool weather and moist rich soil in full or mostly full sun for best growth. If you plant them too soon while weather is still warm, they will become leggy and turn an unattractive color. Warm weather causes them to also be susceptible to cabbage loopers, which leave large holes in the leaves.
Some good container partners for ornamental kale are shorter grasses, snapdragons, pansies, mums, asters or sedums. Here are some classic combinations to try:
• gold and red mums with pink and purple kale
• purple pansies and white kale
• purple kale and yellow or orange pansies
Thank you, Kell, Rich Swanner, coo_sasuke, and Dale the Gardener for your beautiful pictures!
(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on October 2, 2009. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to respond to your questions.