Plant of the Week
Ornamental Kale, Flowering Cabbage
Latin: Brassica oleracea var. acephala
As gardeners, we’re spoiled by the wide variety of flowering plants for the
spring garden. Then fall arrives. Instead of a rich and varied assortment,
we have pansies and chrysanthemums in multi-colored hues and very little
else. But along with these mainstays of fall, we do have a few minor color
items such as the ornamental kales.
Ornamental kale is essentially the same as the kale grown in the vegetable
garden, except the ornamental types have been bred to have showy white or
reddish-purple leaves. Kale, which a member of the cabbage family, is
fundamentally a cabbage that does not produce a head. Instead, it produces
leaves in a tight rosette.
The ornamental kales are biennial, which means they produce leaves one year
and flowers the next. The plants can get about 18 inches tall their first
year. While the ornamental types are technically all kales, by convention
the forms with deeply cut incised leaves are called "ornamental kale," while
the types with a rounded leaf are called "ornamental cabbage."
The common name "flowering cabbage" is misleading because we don’t grow
these plants for their flowers, just their showy leaves. If we have a mild
winter with temperatures that don’t drop below 15 degrees, the plants will
overwinter and produce white, four-petaled flowers on tall stalks. But it
doesn’t get that cold very often in most parts of the state, and anyway, the
flowers are ugly.
Kale is the Scottish name. It’s adapted from the Roman name cole. The
ancient vegetable has been grown for at least 4000 years. All members of the
cabbage tribe originated in the Mediterranean region and were scattered to
all corners of the world by early travelers.
Kale made its way to China, probably by the 4th century, where it and
several relatives became a staple of the Chinese diet. The plants eventually
made their way to Japan where ornamental leaf types were selected. They
became popular in gardens after the 17th century.
In 1929, the U.S. Department of Agriculture sent Howard Dorsett to China and
Japan in search of new plants. One of his introductions was the ornamental
kales from Japan. The plants first appeared in seed catalogs in 1936, giving
us a new item for the fall garden.
The correct season for planting ornamental kale has been debated. In areas
with cool summers and far northern locations with early frosts, it’s best
grown as a summer annual. In the South with our hot summers but long, mild
falls, autumn planting is best.
The leaves of ornamental kale are edible. They’re often used as garnish on
plates in place of parsley.
In the garden, ornamental kale is used as a front-of-the-border plant, or
sometimes for massing in public displays. It should have fertile soil that’s
well drained. It should be situated where it gets at least six hours of
sunlight. Ornamental kale can also be grown in pots as a patio plant.
The plant’s main nemesis is the cabbage looper. The green worm is the larval
stage of a white moth often seen flying above plants with jerky movements at
egg-laying time. The insect can riddle the leaves with holes in just a few
days. Spraying with Sevin or dusting with BT spores provides effective
By: Gerald Klingaman, retired
Extension News -
October 6, 2000
The University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture does not maintain lists of retail outlets where these plants can be purchased. Please check your local nursery or other retail outlets to ask about the availability of these plants for your growing area.
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