There’s a red-stemmed collard in my garden right now that is taller than I am — impressive for a member of the brassica family. It’s a magnificent creature, with huge blue-green leaves that get smaller as they ascend the magenta stalks. The top is crowned with abundant sprays of pale yellow blossoms, presently enjoyed by bees and soon to be followed by slender green pods.
From these I will collect a good supply of seeds, for it is an open-pollinated variety, an heirloom sent by a farmer in Georgia. The plant dominates the vegetable plot, as it would the flower garden — had I thought to site it there as a stunning vertical accent.
The flowers of common garden vegetables may seem beside the point, but they enter our consciousness in a variety of ways. For one thing, flowers are the parts by which botanists divide plant families, and vegetable gardening is all about family relationships.
My collard’s blossoms look much like those of a bolted broccoli, arugula or radish, with four slightly rounded petals surrounding the stamens and pistil. Noting this resemblance is one way of remembering not to repeat this family in the same bed from one year to the next, to avoid overwintering pests and diseases.
The same is true of the Solanaceae, the nightshade family, which includes tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, eggplants and tobacco. The yellow flowers on my tomato vines are a bit like those of the collards’, but if I look closely I can see that the five or so petals are more pointed, and the sexual parts are not visible but enclosed in a bright yellow central column.
Their relatives all follow the same form, with variations in color and size. Peppers’ tiny flowers are white, while eggplants’ are a brilliant purple, beautiful with their yellow centers and set off by the dusky leaves and glossy dark fruits. Potato flowers are white or violet depending on the variety — a great sight when you drive through Aroostook County in early summer.
The legumes, a family that invariably benefits any crop which follows them, have a characteristic blossom too. The ornamental sweet pea, bred for large size, brilliant color and fragrance, is a good introduction to the legume flower form. It has one upper petal called the standard, or banner, which flies above two outspread petals called wings. Below these is a smaller, more hidden petal called the keel.
The name for this flower type is “papilionaceous”, which means “shaped like a butterfly.” All the peas and beans presently in my garden sport variations on this theme — tiny flowers in shades of cream, yellow, pink or violet. Some are especially showy like the Scarlet Runner bean, named for its flower color, or Sunset Runner, its flowers a blend of pink and melon.
A variety called Carlin, which I once grew as a soup pea, surprised me with lovely flowers — bright pink standards atop maroon wings. I hope it proves tasty as well.
Cucurbits such as squash, cucumbers and melons all have bright, golden, trumpets. Okra blossoms are like pale yellow hollyhocks. Corn tassels are flowers, or at least the male part. (The female silks are their “better half.”) Depending on the variety they might be straw-colored, tan, reddish-brown or purple.
This year I grew Painted Mountain, whose tassels are a full range of all of these. Over in the herb garden, the mint tribe (sage, basil, anise hyssop and a host of other favorites) has been spangling the summer with lavender, pink and white spikes. Umbelliferae like dill, fennel and angelica, with their yellow or white parasols, I let go to seed to please the pollinators — and provide flowers for cutting.
When fruiting vegetables flower, it’s a joyous sign to any gardener, for food is never far behind. Female squash blossoms have that exciting little nubbin at the base where the edible part will form. When potatoes bloom you know the tubers have begun to form below ground, and that you can steal a few for supper.
With most leaf, stem and root crops there’s an “oops” response if flowers appear. Bolted beets, spinach and chard, whose flowers look like pigweed, are not something to brag about. But until you need the bed for something else, why not let them proudly wave?
Bolted lettuce may embarrass the tidy gardener, but it eventually forms flower clusters in different colors, depending on the leaf color of the variety. An Italian dandelion row that overwinters by mistake will make flowers as blue as the sky, demonstrating that it is not a true dandelion but a chicory. Miner’s lettuce, all gone to tiny white blooms, perfumes the autumn air.
And how about my red-stemmed collard? Can you top that?