All Hail Kale

I’d never thought of kale as a spring treat. Kale, at its best in fall, is a Scottish chieftain lifting its sword and shield to defy winter’s blast, holding fast to its brave greenery. But attempts to grow kale in our winter greenhouse had failed. It didn’t start to regrow, as spinach would, in the lengthening days of February. It died.

We were using the wrong kales — not wrong for fall, when the cold turns the leaves deliciously sweet, but wrong for overwintering. As with most gardening adventures, you often have to try a number of varieties to find ones that do just what you want them to do.

Most kales that people plant, including the increasingly popular Tuscan varieties such as Lacinato, are of the species Brassica oleracea. But my husband, Eliot, decided to fool around with some of the Russian/Siberian kales. These are of the species Brassica napus, which, if the truth be told, makes them closer to turnips and rutabagas, though with kale-like leaves.

So on Sept. 1, we transplanted two varieties into a small, unheated greenhouse. One was called True Siberian and the other Russian Hunger Gap. The first had a semi-curly leaf with white veins; the second was blue-green with reddish ribs, a bit like the colorful and popular Red Russian.

Hunger Gap sounded promising, because traditionally the hunger gap, or hungry gap, is the period at winter’s end when root crops in the cellar are shriveling long before anything green is happening in the garden. That variety, we were told, would not only winter over, it would also hold a long time before going to seed in spring, forming a nutritional bridge across the dreaded gap.

Both plants did great in fall, then succumbed to low temperatures, like any kale. But in February they were born anew, sending forth fresh, tender foliage. Was that because they were bred to withstand a Siberian winter? Maybe in part, but we think it had more to do with the species’ turnip-like habit of growth, in which stems emerge in a cluster just above the ground, not one tall stem thrusting recklessly into cold air.

Even among the napa types, these proved especially ground-hugging, putting stealth above bravado.

Of course, flavor is what counts, so we tried them both raw and gently cooked. We thought True Siberian was sweet and delicious until we tried Russian Hunger Gap, and it was like putting sugar in tea. We couldn’t get enough of it.

True Siberian is available from Seeds of Change, (, but disappointingly, Russian Hunger Gap seed is currently out of stock at one of its few sources, Adaptive Seeds in Sweet Home, Ore. (; e-mail [email protected] for information).

Enviably, we can save seeds of it after it bolts into bloom, which it will get around to doing, many fine meals later.

Barbara Damrosch, author of “The Garden Primer,” is a freelance writer.

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Fenceviewer Staff

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