Do you grow Kale? Many of us do. It’s so adaptable, growing as annual, biennial, and perennial vegetables. Varieties survive frost, snow, and all but the hottest months in the tropics. But have you seen wild kale, and the extraordinary conditions it grows in?
Growing Perennial vegetables makes sense. They’re hardy! Just look at the extraordinary challenging environments their ancestors grow in.
One cold, windy morning in March, I was walking with my family along the Suffolk coast in England. Totally absorbed in looking at plants struggling to grow on a pebble ridge running parallel to the shore.
There was no soil. Yet growing were silver-coloured rosettes, prostrate, sheltering from the wind, and pea plants emerging between the rounded stones. Covered with beads of salt spray.
Then I noticed a beautiful plant. Purple, green, wavy succulent leaves. It looked almost cabbage-like. I broke off one of the thick fleshy leaves, exposing bright green tissue, and gingerly tasted it… Wow, how exciting, it tasted like cabbage. My thoughts raced through books, images, snippets of information – wild ancestors, kale, sea beet, cabbage, Richard Mabey Food for free…
The leaves were remarkedly un-weather-beaten. Despite the extremely challenging environment.
Some plants were even beginning to form purple shoots, like small broccoli heads. So early in the year. I also realised that the pile of dried stems caught against the plant wasn’t debris washed up by storm tides. It was last years’ growth.
I was so impressed. A wild cabbage growing in pebbles meters deep. How could a plant produce so much prolific growth in such an inhospitable environment?
I could see each plant’s gnarled and calloused stem, twisting down into the darkness. How far down before the roots reached moisture and nutrients?
Later in the day, I found out that it was Sea Kale (Crambe maritima). And it’s edible!
It’s also a perennial. How could annual plants survive in such a harsh environment?
Like a tree cut back and growing again from its roots, the Sea Kale benefits from last year’s growth. It can grow from seed but persistence is its resilience.
Sea Kale is not a direct ancestor of the Kale we usually eat, but it is a member of the cabbage – Brassica Family.
Another perennial coastal plant – Wild Cabbage (Brassica oleracea) is the source of all the varieties of cabbage we consume – Broccoli, Cauliflower, Brussels Sprouts, Kohlrabi, and Kale. It grows on sea cliffs in the Mediterranean region and southwestern Europe.
There is also Sea Beet (Beta vulgaris subsp. maritima). The ancestor of perpetual spinach, beetroot, sugar beet, and Swiss chard. Growing along the banks of tidal creeks.
People living on the coast used to harvest Sea Kale
Heaping pebbles around the root crowns in springtime, to blanch the emerging shoots. For a time in the early eighteenth century, it was also being planted as a garden vegetable.
I have never seen it sold as a vegetable, but you can now buy the seed, and “it has found itself back at the top of the hip list for chefs across the British Isles” according to Susie Mesure, writing for the Independent newspaper in the UK.
I have fallen in love with perennial vegetables, and not just the wild ones!
Perennial vegetables are easier to grow
I save money on seed, spend less time propagating, and always have salad greens, spinach, root vegetables and shoots to harvest. Even in the middle of summer back home in tropical Australia, when Asian greens and Rocket struggle in the heat and humidity.
Perennial vegetables are also better for our soil.
Their leaves providing continuous protection, together with generous servings of organic material and root exudates. The energy drinks and carbon sandwiches feeding our willing team of nutrient recyclers and soil builders.
Where ever you live, there are tasty perennial alternatives to annuals.
You’ll inherit the resilience of these wild ancestors, save heaps of time and money, and will be kind to your soil organisms!
> Get our free resource – 10 Reasons to grow perennial vegetables
Here’s some links for more information:
- Growing Vegetables gets easier with Perennials – interview with Frances Michael from Green Harvest
- Eric Toensmeier’s great book – Perennial Vegetables and website
- Plants for the future has a huge database you can search for perennials
- Perennial salad greens for cold climates