Welcome to Digging In, a column for the horticulturally curious. If you’ve ever entertained bucolic fantasies about starting a farm or lingered around the seed packet display at the hardware store thinking about the things you would grow if you could, this is for you. Whether you have massive tracts of land at your disposal or just a few square feet of fire escape, every gardening endeavor starts with a pile of dirt and a dream.
Walking along the windswept limestone cliffs on the coastlines of northwestern Europe, you’re likely to come across an ancestral plant amid the crumbled bedrock. In its untamed form B. Oleracea, or wild cabbage, is easy to dismiss as a gnarled, overgrown weed, but thousands of years ago humans began the process of cultivating the scraggly growth into one of the most widespread crop families on earth.
Through the process of artificial selection, early farmers gradually shaped wild cabbage into an extensive list of cultivars as varied in appearance and personality as dog breeds. Plants with squatter, bulldog-ish leaf buds produced heads of cabbage.Those with more bloated flower clusters led to the poodle-y curds of cauliflower. And the leafiest sort eventually formed into floppy-eared, basset-like stalks of kale. Other vegetables in the family include broccoli, brussels sprouts, kohlrabi, collard greens, and romanesco.
But within this family of common vegetables, there exist many outré cousins who aren’t likely found in the grocery store. Recently, I’ve developed an obsession with one variety in particular due to its increasing appearance in heirloom seed catalogs. This cultivar, sometimes called walking stick kale, cow cabbage, long jacks, or Jersey cabbage, is by far the strangest member of the wild cabbage family tree. And it’s overdue for a revival in the vegetable garden.
Jersey cabbage’s most distinctive feature is its height. Given the right conditions, the plant can reach upward of 10 feet or higher, towering over the rest of the garden like an ersatz palm tree. Strong and slender, its stalk can be harvested, dried, and fashioned into a walking stick, hence the alternative name, “walking stick kale.” Of course, the greens can also be eaten, just like lacinato or curly kale.
Jersey cabbage originated in Jersey, a freckle of land in the English Channel near the coast of France, where it flourished in the absence of harsh winters. In the 19th and early 20th century, Jersey cabbage grew all around the island, often in the gardens of sheep farmers, who stripped off the young, tender leaves and fed them to livestock (this gives the Jersey cabbage its iconic walking stick shape, because it prompts the plant to grow upward, rather than outward). The seeds were introduced to the mainland U.K. and the U.S., but they never managed widespread cultivation. Eventually, the Jersey cabbage fell into obscurity on its home island as well.
Now, thanks to a broadening interest in heirloom plants, anybody can get their hands on Jersey cabbage seeds. It thrives in mild climates, but you can grow it anywhere you grow kale. The young leaves also taste just like kale, so you can use them like you would any other kale, roasting them alongside eggplant and tomatoes, or nestling them into a cheesy potato gratin. Plant the seeds outside a couple weeks before the last frost in the spring, or a week before the first frost in the fall for fall-winter harvesting. If you are aiming for that walking stick form, harvest the young leaves as it grows, otherwise the plant will revert to a more squat and unruly shape.