Greeks and Romans Grew Kale and Collards
Kale and collards are similar in many respects, differing in little more than the forms of their leaves. They are, in effect, primitive cabbages that have been retained through thousands of years.
Although more highly developed forms, such as cauliflower, broccoli, and head cabbage, have been produced in the last two thousand years or so, the kales and collards have persisted, although primitive, because of their merits as garden vegetables.
These leafy nonheading cabbages bear the Latin name Brassica oleracea variety acephala, the last term meaning "without a head." They have many names in many languages, as a result of their great antiquity and widespread use.
Kale is often called "borecole," and in America collards are sometimes called "sprouts." "Kale" is a Scottish word derived from coles or caulis, terms used by the Greeks and Romans in referring to the whole cabbagelike group of plants. The German word Kohl has the same origin.
"Collards" is a corruption of coleworts or colewyrts, Anglo-Saxon terms literally meaning "cabbage plants."
The cabbagelike plants are native to the eastern Mediterranean or to Asia Minor. They have been in cultivation for so long, and have been so shifted about by prehistoric traders and migrating tribes, that it is not certain which of those two regions is the origin of the species.
The original "cabbage" was undoubtedly a nonheading kind with a prominent stalk or stem, and the kales and collards are not far removed from it. Wild forms have become widely distributed from their place of origin and are found on the coasts of northern Europe and Britain.
Known for at Least 2,000 Years
Apparently none of the several principal forms of kale and collards that we know today are new. All have been known for at least two thousand years.
The Greeks grew kale and collards, although they made no such distinction between them as we make today. Well before the Christian era the Romans grew several kinds, including those with large leaves and stalks and a mild flavor; a crisp-leaved form; some with small stalks and small, sharp-tasting leaves; a broad-leaved form like collards; and others with curled leaves and a fine flavor. "Coles" were described also in the 1st, 3rd, 4th, and 13th centuries by European writers.
It might appear that the Romans carried the coles to Britain and France, since the plants were so well known to the Romans and the species has been popular in those countries for so long. On the other hand, they may have been taken there somewhat earlier by the Celts.
The first mention of the kales (coleworts) in America was in 1669; but because of their popularity in European gardens it is probable that they were introduced somewhat earlier.
Although many forms of Brassica oleracea are now known in parts of the Orient, they are not nearly so popular as the Far Eastern species of Brassica.
Kale and collards have remained minor commercial crops in the United States, although collards are the standard winter greens in home gardens of the South. Neither crop thrives in hot weather, which gives the plants a strong, unattractive flavor. Cool growing weather, fall frosts, and mild winters, however, impart a high sugar content and fine flavor.
Rich in Minerals and Vitamins
Those who know both kale and collards usually consider the latter to have the better eating quality. Nutrition experts in recent years have sought to popularize both plants because they are unusually rich in the minerals and vitamins provided by green leafy foods.
Before the "newer knowledge" of nutrition, our experts bemoaned the poor diet of southern farmers, especially the Negroes, and were amazed to find so many of those people to be apparently well nourished. The ubiquitous collard patch on every farm, and in nearly every dooryard where there is room, is now believed to play a most important part in furnishing the necessary vitamins and minerals.
On one truck farm I saw a beautiful 10 acre field of collards. The farmer explained it was not for sale, but "just a collard patch for the hired hands."
All varieties of collards appear rather similar, but the kales show interesting diversity: tall and short; highly curled and plain leaved; blue-green, yellow-green, and red; erect and flat-growing; in various combinations and gradations of these characters.
Until the last few years kale and collards were marketed only in the natural state. Now, however, several enterprising American canners are preserving them in tin, especially in a finely chopped or "sieved" form as food for babies or persons requiring a special diet.
Kale and collards are among the easiest of all vegetables to grow. They are biennials, putting up their flower or seed stalks in the spring of their second season of growth.