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Which Kale is really a Swede?!

People are very excited about kale these days. This is a love-hate vegetable. There are signs in Sydney suburbs declaring it a magical wonder food. An article in the Sydney Morning Herald reckons people only eat it when it tastes nothing like kale e.g. the famous kale chip. Some of us are paying lots for kale chips especially those amazing “cheesy” ones that don’t contain cheese! Peter Cundle loves kale and attributes his health to kale soup, others throw it into green drinks with gay abandon. My friend Lina chops it finely and massages in olive oil and lemon juice to soften it. Many people never eat it at all or use it only as chook food.

I have long been a big fan of  Red Russian Kale.

Red Russian Kale contrasted with Frilly Pink Lettuce

The fantastic blue-grey frilled leaves highlighted with purple stems make it one of those plants that are superb on the eyes and the taste buds. It is in the category of beautiful plants I’d grow even if I didn’t eat them: Ruby Chard, orange and cumquat trees, artichokes, mizuna, purple cabbage, carrot flowers … OK I have to admit here that I am a Brassica addict.
Can’t go a day without something from this family. Rocket cooked in an omelette or raw in salad, cabbage fried up with fennel, black pepper, cumin and coriander seeds or even just plain steamed. I’m drooling at the thought of cabbage naturally fermented or mushed up in cole slaw – any sort, even fast food cole slaw can be delicious.


Been eating it since Dad gave me a crisp stem to munch and agreed that it did have a nutty flavour. (Yes, about 50 years ago in Sydney broccoli was a ‘new’ vegetable at the green grocers!) I was delighted to meet and eat its close cousin Kohlrabi, another plant that should be on my beautiful list. And Brussels Sprouts, ohhh yum! I can’t believe some people don’t like them. Steamed with butter, salt and pepper, I can eat at least 10. If I moved to a cold climate Brussels Sprouts and peonies would be the first things to plant. And what about those delightful radishes? They deserve a whole article to themselves.

Black Tuscan Kale

Cavalo Nero, Black Tuscan Kale, Lacinato

When I got interested in seed saving, I was swept away by the dramatic Black Tuscan Kale (Cavalo Nero: Black Cabbage in Italian) and just had to grow it!
Provides great visual drama in the garden and acts as a strong lure for green caterpillars if you own chickens.  Other people at Glovers Community Garden grew Curly Kale and I thought I’d give that a go; attractive and also great chook food too. It looks like the one used for most kale chips. Collard Greens are classified as Brassica oleracea var. acephala just like kale.  I find them a bit like a tough cabbage without the sweetness and crunch. They are however, very easy to grow, and put up with quite a bit of heat.
There are many kales with poetic names:

  • Two Peters
  • Old Women Meet and Gossip
  • Walking Stick
  • Chou Mollier.

There seem to be many debates about the classification of brassicas!
Portuguese Cabbage or Couve Tronchuda is said by some to be a collard and others a kale. It certainly looks more cabbage-like than the kales in my photos. The Portuguese Summer Cabbage that I bought from Eden Seeds years ago, was rather like Kailaan with blue-green leaves and white flowers.

Now here’s the good news. Well as a seed saver I think it’s great!  I have recently found out that Red Russian Kale should  really be called something like Red Russian Leaf Swede! It is not a Brassica oleracea at all but Brassica napus. Thank you Simon Rickard for this wonderful information. What it means for a seed saver like me is that I can let Red Russian and Black Tuscan flower at the same time and they won’t cross! This is great if you want true to type seed to grow next season and pass on to others.

More good news: while the other kales are providing food and shelter for cabbage butterfly babies, they are not so keen on Red Russian. Neither are the snails. Admittedly Red Russian seems to need more water than Black Tuscan once the hot weather sets in. Even better, while your true kales, broccolis, European cabbages, cauliflowers and even Kailaan, are all flowering and cross-pollinating like crazy,

Red Russian will only be crossing with another Red Russian or a Swede if one happens to be flowering nearby. Don’t worry if your turnips, mustards, radishes and rocket are flowering. They are Brassica rapa, Brassica juncea, Raphanus sativus and Eruca saliva and they won’t cross with B. oleracea varieties.

Ahh a Red Dutch Cabbage with heart! Small but homegrown.

Everything I know about the Brassicas comes from:

  • Wikipedia,
  • Heirloom Vegetables: a guide to their history and varieties by Simon Rickard,
  • Oriental Vegetables: The Complete Guide for the Gardening Cook, by Joy Larkcom and
  • (saving the best for last) the brilliant Seed Savers’ Handbook by Jude and Michel Fanton. Just check on page 168 to find out who’s related to whom.


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