It’s been a stiff competition, but we have a finalist for our Gardener’s “Olympic Green Medal.”
2022’s winner is…Brassica oleracea, for team Heirloom Cabbage! And what a huge family team it is.
Wild cabbages (ancestors of cultivated heirloom cabbages), as well all others in the Brassica family, (kale, broccoli, cauliflower, kohlrabi, and Brussels sprouts) can be traced to the Mediterranean. Brassicas then spread to coastal northwestern Europe including the southern coast of England, western France, and Holland.
The word brassica derives from bresic, a Celtic (Northern European) word for cabbage. Many European and Asiatic names for cabbage are derived from the Celto-Slavic root cap or kap, meaning “head”. The late Middle English word cabbage derives from the Old French word caboche (“head”).
The Romans also cultivated a varietal team with three main differences: crinkled or curly-leaved like kale; smooth-leafed, open-headed cabbages; and a wild lot with small-roundish leaves.
Unfortunately, many of the earliest heirloom cabbage varieties have vanished, but there are still many available today that are worth exploring and propagating.
While today’s cabbages are usually “heading” types, heirlooms take other forms.
There’s the Wakefield group, those with pointed heads; the Copenhagen group, forming round balls; drumheads with flattened heads; and Savoys varying from very loose-leafy heads resembling giant-crinkled kale, to monster-sized drumheads. (Most Savoys are the hardiest cabbages of all heading varieties.)
Unfortunately, many of the oldest varieties are no longer around. However, the home gardener can cultivate a number of wonderful unique heirloom varieties they’ll not find at any market.
Whether heirloom or not, good soil is what creates winning cabbages, with ground that’s generously amended with the richest compost (manure-mix is the best).
Sow your seeds indoors (about 6-8 weeks before last frost) ¼” deep in sterilized soil mix. Sprouting should happen in about 7-10 days in 50-75° F heat.
Pot seedlings up when they’re about 3-4” high. Once they root in a couple weeks, acclimate them outside (harden off) by gradually lengthening their exposure time. Plant out in spring, spacing 18-20” apart depending on variety.
Cabbages are thirsty creatures, so keep them consistently irrigated (no overhead watering) and heavily mulched to retain moisture. Keeping plants cooler avoids bolting.
Row cover is key to keeping pests away. Using a frost-blanket type keeps more sensitive varieties from freezing in early winter.
Heads are ready for harvesting when firm and filled out. Cut from the stem with a sharp knife. If enough remains, the stem will soon give you “mini” cabbage side sprouts like Brussels sprouts to clip and savor.
From tight, round or frilly ruffles to pale green, bright emerald, variegated purple, or rich ruby red, heirloom cabbages astound the avid gardening spectator. Guaranteed!
So, what does that mean for today’s home gardener? We have quite a variety of heirloom cabbages to select from that will surely bring home that “Olympic Green Grower’s Medal” to grace supper, picnic, or pickled (there’s nothing like homemade kraut!) presentations.
Seed Sources for Heirloom Cabbage:
Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds
You’ll find a multitude of varieties.
Pinetree Garden Seeds
They have several varieties.
Seed Savers Exchange
They have five varieties.
Braised Heirloom Cabbage
One large heirloom cabbage, any type, cut lengthwise in thick wedges
One large organic red onion, peeled and cut in thin wedges
6 cloves of garlic, peeled and sliced crosswise
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon honey or agave nectar
1/3 cup white wine or red for red-leaved varieties (Vermouth enhances cabbage sweetness)
1/4 cup chicken or turkey bone broth (or vegetable stock)
1 tablespoon minced fresh rosemary
fresh ground sea salt and pepper
3 tablespoons good balsamic vinegar
Preheat oven to 300° F. Put cabbage and onion wedges in bottom of a Dutch oven or other heavy, ovenproof pot. Mix together garlic, olive oil, honey, white wine, broth, and minced rosemary. Add about 1/8 teaspoon sea salt and a few twists of ground pepper or to taste. Pour over cabbage and onion. Cover tightly with lid or heavy foil and cook for an hour.
Rotate cabbage and onions, then braise for another 30 minutes. Then, remove from oven. Increase oven to 400° F. Pour balsamic vinegar over vegetables and roast uncovered for about 20 minutes until glazed and tender.
Serve hot. Makes about 6-8 servings loaded with vitamins and minerals as well a delicious taste.