University of Vermont Extension 
Department of Plant and Soil Science

Anytime News Article

Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor
University of Vermont
Cabbage and kale grow best in cool times of the growing season, are among the hardiest vegetables, are ornamental, and are nutritious.  With all this going for them, they have been named vegetables of the year for 2007 by the National Garden Bureau.  This organization has provided some interesting facts on their origins and the types available.

Some of the earliest records of cabbages and kales date back to the Greeks and Romans, who brought cabbages to the Black Sea region.  There, the Slavs were recorded growing them in the 9th century.  From there these crops moved into Russia where they became a staple food and highly regarded.  Princes ranked them as gifts along with racing horses and jewels.

Kale originally came from the eastern Mediterranean area and Asia Minor, where it was a food crop since at least 2000 B.C.  In 350 B.C., Theophrastus described a savoyed form of kale.

Cabbage became a popular food plant in western Europe due to the Celts, with the first written record in the 13th century of “white” or hard-heading cabbage.  The scientific name for cabbages (Brassica) actually comes from the Celtic word “bresic” for this plant.

In the 14th century in England, records distinguished between heading and non-heading kale, then called “coleworts.”  Kale was the most  common green vegetable in Europe during the middle ages.  In the 15th century in England, records are found of the loose-heading “Savoy” cabbages, named for the Italian province.  Red cabbage was first recorded in England in 1570. 

Cabbages were brought to the New World by the colonists from England, with the first
written record of them in 1669.   By the 1700s, cabbage was grown widespread by both colonists and native peoples.  The first record of cabbage in Canada was in 1542, planted by Jacques Cartier on his third voyage.  Russian kale was brought to Canada (and then the U.S.) by Russian traders in the 19th century.

Chinese cabbage has been cultivated and grown in Asia from earliest times, although it is not mentioned in Chinese literature until the 5th century. It was introduced from China to Japan in the 1860s; in the 1880s and 1890s immigrant laborers brought it to America.

Although the scientific genus name for cabbages comes from the Celts, the common name comes from the French word “caboche” meaning head.  This was used to refer to both heading and loose-leaf types.  Kale is a Scottish word that comes from either the Greek “coles” or the Roman “caulis”, referring to this whole group of plants.

Both cabbage and kale share the same scientific name (Brassica oleracea), with the modern hard-heading varieties in the Capitata (meaning head) group, and kale in the Acephala (meaning non-heading) group.  Chinese cabbage is more closely related to mustard than cabbage, so is in a different species (campestris) and Pekinensis group.  All, however, are in the cabbage family (Brassicaceae).  This family may be seen by its older name (Cruciferae), which gives rise to the often seen name “crucifers” for these plants.  Other relatives in this family include broccoli, brussel sprouts and cauliflower.  You may even find crosses among them, such as “broccolini”—a cross between broccoli and Chinese kale.

Most cabbages are in the head, or Capitata, group with three main types: smooth, green leaves; smooth, red leaves; and Savoy, with their crinkled or “savoyed” leaves which make them attractive in flower gardens.  They are are sweeter with a more delicate flavor than green
cabbages. Outer leaves are generally deep green, lightening to pale green inner.

Each cabbage type can be described further by head shape (such as rounded or oval), and harvest time.  For all, the outer—usually darker—leaves are called wrapper leaves. Flat-headed cabbages are best for stuffing. Large, late cabbages are most flavorful and best for sauerkraut.

Chinese cabbages (also called Chinese celery) generally have elongated heads with broad,
white-stalked, overlapping, savoyed (crinkled) leaves with a mild to slightly sharp flavor.  Napa cabbage, also known as “closed head”, is the best known type of Chinese cabbage.  Leaves overlap over the top of the head.  Leaves of “open head” cabbage grow upright like Romaine lettuce.  Michihili cabbages are the tallest of the Chinese cabbages, and have narrow conical heads that blanche well. 

Kales are differentiated by length of stem and leaf type.  The two main types are the Scotch, which have gray-green and very curled or crumpled leaves, and the Siberian types, which are blue-green and less curled.  There are dwarf and tall selections of both.  There are many varieties, including some ornamental ones from Japan, with leaf colors in reds, whites, and purples to almost black.  You may see “curly kale” for those widely grown varieties with deep green and ruffled leaves, and “dinosaur kale” for those with blue-green leaves.

Cabbage and kale prefer cooler temperatures, so grow and taste best early and late in the season.  Too hot, and these crops may not produce heads and may flower or “bolt” instead. Kale is often grown for its ornamental leaves in the fall, and for fall harvest as it is sweeter after a light frost.  Darker-leaved varieties of both are quite nutritious and even may help prevent cancer.

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