Collards are a loose leaf vegetable from the Brassica family, which includes cabbages, kale, broccoli and mustards. They are sometimes referred to as “collard greens”, “tree collards” or ‘borekale’.1 Botanically speaking, they are Brassica oleracea v. viridis, literally “green stem vegetable”.

The word ‘collards’ comes from the Middle English word ‘colewort’ (cabbage), which is also the origin of “coleslaw” – a salad made from cabbage.2

HISTORICAL INFORMATION

Collards are one of the oldest members of the cabbage family. They originated in the area around the eastern Mediterranean, near Greece.3 Collards were cultivated by the ancient Greeks and Romans.4 Like many vegetables from the Mediterranean area, they were taken into Europe and Northern Africa by the Romans as the Empire spread.

According to one source, collards are now “grown mainly in Brazil, Portugal, the southern states of the USA, as well as parts of Africa, the Balkans, Spain, and Kashmir in India”.5

Collards were one of the few vegetables that slaves were allowed to grow3 to feed themselves in the time before the American Civil War. They are still a traditional part of the African-American diet, especially in the South. On New Years’ Day, greens, usually cooked with pork, are cooked in the belief that they will bring greater financial prosperity. This arises from the idea that folded collard greens look like American dollar bills.6

There seems to be no definitive answer, but it seems likely that collards made their way to Australia with migrants from Europe and India. They are not widely grown here and seeds can be hard to find; seedlings are not usually available in garden centres.

DESCRIPTION OF PLANTS and SEEDS

Collards have leaves similar to cabbages – dark green, slightly crumpled and thick. The stems are tough and usually not eaten. Descriptions of collards describe plants to 30cm tall, but we have grown a single plant for several years and it reached well over a metre. The seeds of collards are similar to all Brassica oleracea seeds – small, spherical and brown. The seeds come from pods which follow the yellow flowers.

CULINARY and MEDICINAL USES

Collards can be used as a substitute for kale. The leaves are edible at any stage, but are more tender and less bitter when young. We often use them in green smoothies with other greens to give a variety of vitamins and minerals. Larger leaves can be used to make cabbage rolls. The pods are edible – we like them in stir fried dishes, but others say they steam them as they would green beans.7 The flowers are also edible. Some recipes for using collards are provided in the references below.

Medicinally, collard greens are full of vitamins and minerals, as well as being high in natural fibre.5 They are said to promote lung health, provide protection for the cardiovascular system, give a healthy transition though menopause and provide broad antioxidant protection.3  Another site claims that collards aid in bone health, diabetes and liver function, digestion, promote healthy skin and hair, and promote better sleep and moods. 8

OTHER BENEFITS

Collards grow through the coolest months of the year, thereby providing greens when not much else is growing. They are relatively easy to grow and can be used as a “cut and come again” vegetable. Like all brassicas, the flowers of collards attract pollinators.

Chickens love all greens of the Brassica family so, if they get too old and tough before you harvest them, your chickens will still eat them. Because they are nutrient dense, they are great additions to the compost bin too.

HOW TO GROW COLLARDS

Collard greens are a frost-hardy biennial plant, often grown as an annual. Seeds can be sown in the coolest months of the year, from May to August. Like many leaf vegetables, they require a rich, free draining soil. They prefer full sun in winter but can be grown in part shade. If you choose to grow them as a more perennial-style “cut and come again” vegetable, they will need protection from the hot afternoon sun in summer.

Sow seeds, 5mm deep, into seed-raising mix in punnets or seed trays. The seed will germinate with soil temperatures as low as 8°C, and the seedlings should be visible in as little as 5 to 10 days. If the soil temperature falls below 8°C, you may need to place your seeds in a greenhouse or cold-frame, or germinate them in an unheated room (bathroom or laundry). Once germination has occurred, be sure to move them outside to ‘harden off’ – which means to prepare them for the colder conditions of your garden.

We have found that two or three plants is more than enough for two people for one season. As I said previously, we grow the plants for 2 years (or more) so that they can complete their full lifecycle.

Transplant seedlings 40-60cm apart when they are big enough for you to handle. If you prefer, you can put them on into individual pots and grow them until they are bigger. Be aware that every time you move them, you set them back about a week.

Like all brassicas, collards are susceptible to the caterpillars of the white cabbage butterfly. They are also loved by slugs and snails. In our garden, we use mosquito netting to keep the cabbage white butterfly off our crops, and we use copper tape around old plant pots with the base cut out to protect from slugs and snails.

Collards can be grown in a container, but I would suggest a big pot, at least 40cm in diameter and a minimum of 30cm deep. Harvest leaves often to keep it on the small side.

Very small seedlings may need to be protected from frost; however, the more mature the plant, the more resistant it is to frost damage. Indeed, frost is good because it makes the leaves sweeter.

leaves can be harvested from as little as 60 days. Remember the younger the leaf, the more tender it is.

SEED HARVEST

If you are intending to collect the seed to plant in the next growing season, you will probably need to wait until the second year. By then, the plant will have reached a significant height (ours were one metre) and a spread of about 80cm. For this reason, plants need to planted on the south side of garden beds, where they will not shade other plants.

As much as possible, allow the seed pods to stay on the plant until they have dried completely. If the older pods start to open, place a bag over the pods to catch any falling seed. ln wet weather, you may need to collect the seed in a dry spell. Put the seed pods and stems upside-down into a paper bag and hang to dry in an airy location protected from the rain and, if possible, ambient humidity. The seed is not dry enough if any of the pod remains green. If the seed has fallen into the bottom of the bag, it is probably dry enough.

SEED AVAILABILITY

The PSW Seed Bank is closed for stock-take and will not re-open until  August. You can pre-order seeds of Collard ‘Morris Heading’ to pick up at the PSW meeting on Monday night, 6 June 2022, or buy seeds from the Seed Savers team at the meeting. Seeds for other winter-sowing vegetables will also be available

– 50c a packet.

Until next month
Lynne (PSW Seed Savers Coordinator)

 

REFERENCES

  1. Gardenate, Growing Collards, also Collard Greens, Borekale
  2. Foodprint, Real Food Encyclopedia | Collard Greens
  3. Janice K, Richland Library, “A Taste of History” blog, Some may ask why Collard Greens? And I say, why Not?
  4. Table, Collard Greens: Fun Facts & Recipes
  5. ChefIn Dictionary, Collard Greens
  6. Allan Miller, quoted by Kayla Stewart, New York Times, Tracing the Origins of a Black American New Year’s Ritual
  7. Plant Based Gabriel, How to cook collard green seed pods
  8. Medical News Today, Why you should eat your collard greens