July 26th, 2016
The Allure of the Strange
Some years back, I was part of a community garden. We arrived the very first year of its existence, which meant that it was a place with no traditions and where most of the gardeners were beginners. Consequently, there was unusual clarity, as the different patches began to sprout, about what everyone valued. There were immense plots, tiny plots, highly ordered micro farms that could have escaped from an illustrated children’s book. And then, there was my plot.
Do you recall those now-unfashionable “which does not belong” tests? Well, that was my patch. It was a veritable side-show of freakish food crops, things popular in distant times, distant places, or never popular anywhere. The crowning irony of my experiment was that its most successful crop was a mystery weed that arrived in compost and which turned out to be lambsquarters, a fast-growing native american food plant once grown for edible leaves, grain and broccoli-like flowers. Too bad I discovered this after I eradicated it.
Nevertheless, the pride of my garden of freakishness was a plant I’d never seen, only heard of — walking stick kale. In a window into my working methods, I was trying to locate a source of Egyptian walking onions when I stumbled across this other (metaphorically) ambulatory food plant.
This kale (or collard, more on that later) sprouts a tuft of big leaves from a woody stem that can reach taller than head height. It looks, for all the world, like a rather gnarled miniature palm tree. What’s more, its home turf is the British channel island of Jersey, a speck of Englishness marooned off the coast of Brittany. Visitors to Jersey took to calling the kale/collard “Jersey Cabbage,” though the locals knew it simply as cow cabbage.
It wasn’t a reference to the massive size of the plant, (typically 8-10 feet tall, with some specimens reaching 20 feet) but rather to the fact that it was grown as fodder for cows, and the Jersey cow looms large in your life, whether or not you know it. That’s because the Jersey, from its forty-five square mile homeland, has fanned out to become the second most common dairy cow in the world, and one with the distinction of having the highest body weight to milk production ratio.
The Jersey cabbage was an ideal fodder plant because it produced a lot of food for both cows and sheep and, of course, it was a kale/collard, a nutritional powerhouse. But from a farmer’s point of view, it had an even more important trait. Unlike an ordinary cabbage that needed to be planted every year, cow cabbage was a perennial, living as long as 20 years and producing fresh leaves year round.
When a cow cabbage finally hit the end of the road, the hollow, woody stem could be dried (for a year) sanded down (with sand from Jersey’s ubiquitous beaches) and converted to a lightweight and sturdy walking stick. In a statistical snapshot from 110 years ago, we know that thirty thousand of them sold in 1906, at a shilling a piece, a welcome addition to the income of Jersey’s farmers.
In the 19th century heyday of the Jersey cabbage, the plant was a common sight not only on Jersey, where it formed small, peculiar forests, and lined pea patches like living fences, but in gardens all across the UK where it appealed — as it had to me — just because it was so unusual. That was then, however and now only one family of Jersey islanders (Philip and Jacquelyn Johnson) still produces the the classic walking stick.
When I went looking for my specimens of Walking Stick Kale, I found myself lost in the jungle of names that surrounds this peculiar plant. But it seemed to be more than just an issue of taxonomy because, while I could order seeds of Walking Stick Kale, I could only get cuttings of what was called Tree Collard. It seemed that “Tree Collard” would only spit out seeds when it (infrequently) felt like it and what’s more, whatever you’d grow from those seeds would more often than not turn into something other than what you were after.
What we call kales and collards are close cousins and have been food plants for so long that we’re not exactly sure where in Asia Minor they originally came from. They are most easily understood as forms of non-heading cabbage, closely related to the original wild cabbage, which still grows along the shores of Europe. The Ancient Greeks and Romans grew kales and collards, but did not distinguish between them.
For that, we needed Britain, because the two names are actually a result of the linguistic division of Europe into the latinate and germanic tongues. Kale is a Scottish version of the Latin caulis, while the Anglo-Saxons took the German for the same thing (“kohl”) and converted it to “kohlwyrts” —literally “cabbage plants” — which transformed into “collards” as we forgot how to talk like Beowulf.
My experiment with walking stick kale — I went with seeds — produced three diminutive cabbage plants that popped up quickly and expired before even approaching knee height. In this, they were very much a part and parcel of that first food garden, where only a single plant — zucchini — produced any edible food and even it was soon obliterated by something that I eventually understood as “powdery mildew.”
It was safe to say that the experiment was a categorical failure which also cast a pall over my ambition to grow food. Not that I was planning on a future in farming, but having the understanding of how to use sun and soil to feed one’s self seemed like — and still does seem like — an incredibly fundamental thing to know, something so fundamental that ignorance of it is actually rather creepy.
But over time, the experiment has seemed less and less like a disaster. The reason is that I misunderstood what sort of garden I had planted. I thought that I was growing food. But if I had stepped back for a moment — or perhaps regarded the garden as the work of someone else — I might have seen it for what it really was. Good decisions, as they say, come from experience, and experience comes from bad decisions. That first garden of thriving “weeds” and expiring zucchini actually produced a bumper crop of seed stock for knowledge. It was just a start, of course, but enough has now germinated for me to take another run at raising strange and towering vegetables.
And maybe some lambsquarters.