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Flowering kale and cabbage: Too pretty to eat

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Courtesy of Karan Davis Cutler

(Read caption) Flowering kales and cabbages were brought to the United States in 1929 by a USDA officer who had been sent to Asia to look for new plants. Garden catalogs first offered seed for several varieties in 1936.

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You can eat flowering kales and cabbages -- also known as ornamental kalle and cabbage -- but you won’t want to. You’ll want them in your garden beds and borders — or in containers — where they will continue to “bloom” well into winter.

The bloom, of course, is not a flower but foliage -- a rosette of central leaves that lose their chlorophyll as the mercury drops, changing from green to white, pink, purple, and near-red.

It’s not too late to install a plant in a pot on your doorstep — flowering kales and cabbages love cold weather, and temperatures down to 20 degrees F or so (minus 7 degrees C). Gardeners in warm regions can grow ornamental kales and cabbages throughout winter.

Is it a cabbage or a kale?

How can you tell if a plant is a kale or cabbage? Both are Brassica oleracea var. acephala, genetically identical. Both also have colorful centers. But ornamental cabbages have leaves with wavy edges, whereas the leaves of ornamental kale have ruffled or crinkled edges.

Breeders, always on the prowl for something new, continue to cross and recross the two, so that knowing which is which is nearly impossible, even for the experts.

Whether you’re growing a kale or a cabbage isn’t important, as they have similar cultural requirements (a sunny location, cool temperatures, humus-rich soil, plenty of water, and good drainage). Both are biennials, but gardeners treat them as annuals and toss them on the compost pile once the temperature turns their leaves to mush.

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