Do you grow Broccoli, Cauliflower, Brussels Sprouts, Kohlrabi, and Kale? Many of us do. But do you know that Sea Kale and Wild Cabbage are the source of all the varieties of Brassicas we consume? They’re perennial and grown in extraordinarily challenging environments. Look at what we can learn from Nature!
One cold, windy morning in March, I was walking with my family along the Suffolk coast in England. Totally absorbed in looking at plants, covered with beads of salt spray, struggling to grow on a pebble ridge running parallel to the shore.
There was no soil. Yet there were silver-coloured rosettes growing, prostrate, sheltering from the wind, and pea plants emerging between the rounded stones.
One plant looked almost cabbage-like – beautiful purple, green, wavy succulent leaves. I broke off one of the thick fleshy leaves, exposing bright green tissue, and gingerly tasted it… Wow, how exciting, it tasted like cabbage.
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 year’s growth.
I was impressed. A wild cabbage growing in pebbles. How could a plant produce so much prolific growth in such an inhospitable environment? Each plant had a 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). It’s edible and also a perennial.
Sea Kale is not a direct ancestor of Kale, but it is a member of the Brassica (cabbage) 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. Sea Beet (Beta vulgaris subsp. maritima) is the ancestor of perpetual spinach, beetroot, sugar beet, and Swiss chard. It grows naturally along the banks of tidal creeks.
Harvesting Sea Kale
People used to harvest sea kale. They heaped 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’ve never seen it sold as a vegetable. But you can 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!
Learning from Nature
Perennial vegetables are tough, and easier to grow than annuals. We save on seeds, spend less time propagating, and always have vegetables to eat.
Perennial vegetables are also better for our soil. Their leaves provide continuous protection, together with generous servings of leaves, stems, root tissues and root exudates to feed the soil organisms recycling nutrients and maintaining the soil structure.
Wherever you live, discover what tasty perennial vegetables you can grow. You’ll inherit the resilience of their wild ancestors and will be kind to your soil organisms!
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