An unapologetic plant geek shares advice and opinions on gardening, the contrived and the natural landscape, as well as occasional topics from the other side of the gate.

February 9, 2012

My Favorite Brassicas

The first time I saw cabbage used as an ornamental was about 25 years ago, and it left an impression on me, but not necessarily a good one. The landscapers at Seabrook Island, where I worked, had planted many of the pink variety (probably Brassica oleracea var. capitata 'Osaka Pink') en masse with solid yellow pansies. It seemed few beds at the resort were neglected from this combination. They were planted in a rigid grids like so many pink soccer balls lined up for practice. What I knew of horticulture then was not much, but I knew this plant looked more at home on the kitchen counter than in the landscape.

Fast forward to today, and I am still no fan of most ornamental cabbage. However, there are a couple of members of the Brassica family that regularly have a place in my winter garden. One of these is Redbor kale (Brassica oleracea 'Redbor'). I like that it grows taller than other Brassicas, has a very interesting texture, and I love the smoky purple color.  I once had another horticulturist tell me that as soon as you see the flower stalk on any Brassica then it was time to pull them out.  Last spring I let mine hang around long enough to bloom and the sulphur-yellow flowers were a nice compliment to the dark foliage, and I was very happy that sometimes I don't listen to what other horticulturists say.

Brassica oleracea 'Redbor'

Brassica oleracea 'Redbor' (2)

Brassica oleracea 'Redbor'

Perhaps my favorite ornamental Brassica is giant red mustard (Brassica juncea var. rugosa). The large puckered leaves are a shiny burgundy and the stalks and ribs can be a bright acid green. I use to always pair these with solid yellow, faceless pansies, but the past couple of years I have been using Delta Tapestry that contains some of the same colors as the mustard mixed with shades of yellow.  Giant red mustard will also bloom with the same type of flower as the kale, but I don't find it as reliable.

Brassica juncea var. rugosa

Brassica juncea var. rugosa

Brassica juncea var. rugosa

Both of these plants need full sun and put up with what kind of winters we have here in zone 8, but I know they can take colder. During the warmer days of fall you will have to keep them moist, but once they are established and temperatures cool, little supplemental water is necessary. Last year we had some heavy-for-our-area snow that temporarily mashed down the mustard, but did not seem to phase the kale. Even though Redbor kale and giant red mustard are sold as ornamentals, they can both be eaten, but I prefer another member of the family for that.

I usually find my favorite edible Brassica between two halves of a bun keeping company with some barbecue. I like my Q North Carolina style, which is usually made from slow cooked pork shoulder, finely minced, doused with a vinegar based sauce, and it must be topped with coleslaw. Anything else is just another meat sandwich.



  1. Both of these brassica's are my very favorites also and you've really captured their color and texture so beautifully! Wonderful winter post!

  2. Lovely Les. Love this plant family, but do prefer my bbq tomato based! It goes well with slaw, too. I have had the Redbor kale self sow and the seedlings come true. Just a thought to leave the seedheads after flowering.


    ps, much gardening advice is best ignored! Trial and error works so much better.

  3. so Les, tell us where you get your favorite BBQ---we hunt it out, last weekend we went to richmond and tried Ronnie's ribs and wings---(i like the red mustard, too---)

  4. Does your sauce have any tomato in it? If not, then you are eating Eastern NC barbecue ... which is not the best barbecue in the state! Gotta go to Western NC for the best ... while others would argue, I still hold firm that the best barbecue is found in Shelby, NC. Lucky for me, I learned from some of the best around while working at a barbecue joint in high school and now I just make my own.


    PS - Have you tried Tuscan Kale (Black Kale or Dinosaur Kale)? I want to give it a try next fall/winter.

  5. I was going to mention the Dinosaur Kale, there is a neighborhood entrance that has a stand of it by the front gate. What a bold statement in the winter landscape.
    I want to have some of the kale in the winter garden next year....great colors and great structure.
    ps- my word verification is 'crooked' hahaha
    and psss- Charlie's BBQ is best, smoked pork and SOUTH Carolina vinegar sauce (will send you the recipe if you like)

  6. Les, You are sharing some of my favorite greens but I prefer them raw in smoothies or steamed not between. ;>) Wonderful photos!

  7. Enjoyable post and lovely photographs. Around New Hampshire, it's common to see a variety of ornamental Brassicas used in planters as storefront displays....and now I am extremely homesick for that tangy Brassica on that NC BBQ sandwich. Sigh...

  8. Meg,
    Thanks Meg, and it looks like we may get a little taste of a real winter this evening.

    I think I will leave my Redbor up even longer this spring so the seeds will drop.

    I have several places. The picture was taken at Beach Bully's in Va. Beach, but I like Doumars in Norfolk as much for its limeades and ice cream as for its Q, Pierces in Williamsburg makes a different type but good nonetheless.

    I will argue with you on that point as I prefer eastern style, and put sauce made from tomatoes on my french fries. But it is a great big beautiful world with room for lots of tastes. I have not tried the Tuscan or Black, but want to, it's not easy to find here other than from seed.

    I saw that kale when we were in Denver at the bot. garden, and I really admired it. They had it planted with some vivid orange annuals that I did not recognize. It was a stunning combo. When I lived in Charleston their BBQ always came smothered in a sweet mustard sauce, not bad, but not my fav.

    My family's green of choice are turnip greens. They can be bitter, but act almost as a palette cleanser to heavier food.

    Next time you are down you should stock up. Maybe bring a cooler to take some home.


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  10. I'm a fan of the eastern NC bbq sauce too, although it's been a couple years since I had a pulled pork sandwich. I agree that cole slaw is a key addition.

  11. I like North Carolina style barbeque too! I miss is here in Tennessee. Beautiful mustard. I really like the crinkly texture. Very nice for the winter!

  12. Glad to find a fellow ornamental cabbage hater (although yours are beautiful). They are especially awful in a mild winter like this one where they go on forever and become spring plantings.

  13. I could go for that sandwich, but really shouldn't. Yum, anyway!

  14. Q. You got me going. My mouth is watering just looking at that sandwich. mmmm. Agreed about the monotony of kale. I am trying the dinosaur kale this spring, I know it will bolt but love the texture while its here.

  15. Hi Les, I have not been here more often. Ornamental cabbages are always fanciful for us here because we cannot grow them. I sometimes see them in garden shows and i really love them. Even our highlands have difficulty growing them. I wonder if they are also very attractive to insects like their Brassica cousins.