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David Watson Hood, visual artist.
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Kail: Brassica oleracea sabellica L. Synonyms: Brassica oleracea L. convar. acephala (DC.) Alef. var. fimbriata L, Brassica oleracea var.acephala crispa (EURODICAUTOM). Borecole, Borekole, Cale, Càl, Cole, Colewort, Curly kale, kail, Kale, Kitchen kale, Keill, Kell, Scotch kale, Siberian kale.


kail flowersWe are not very used to seeing kale in flower, now most seed is bought from the seed-merchant. It must once have been a common summer sight to see some of the last year's plants left in to flower. It takes most of the second season before the seed ripens.

Like many foods, it is best gathered immediately before eating, a fact that does not endear it to those whose aim is to make all survival a matter of commerce.

The taxonomy and naming of cultivated forms of Brassica oleracea synonym: Brassica sylvestris (L.) Mill. (wild cabbage and ancestor of kales, cabbages, cauliflowers, broccolis, marrow stem kale, sprouts etc. etc.) is convoluted and at many points unclear and disputed; as it also is for B. napus, ancestor of rape/swede, (but confusingly also the ancestor of B. napus L. var. pabularia [DC.] Rchb. Which is variously known in English as: Siberian kale, Rape kale, Hanover-salad, Hungry gap kale, Asparagus kale) and for B. rapa the ancestor of the turnip, Chinese cabbage and etc. The gourmet wild delicacy 'sea kale' is Crambe maritima L. and although a crucifer it is not even a brassica.

The curly 'Scotch' kales definitely fall into the sabellica group which is in turn a part of the acephala, 'headless cabbage' subspecies. This confusion of classification is understandable because the Brassica were among the earliest domestications of vegetables. The various introductions into cultivation and breeding of varieties probably took place on a small scale at numerous places and times throughout Eurasia conducted by ordinary sub-subsistence farmers and gardeners, not by agricultural researchers keeping records.

History is too busy with recording the mass-murders instigated by the great and good, and their accumulation of vast profits while actually destroying resources, to take much note of the real heroes of genuine wealth creation, those who actually create a new resource as opposed to simply a profit. So it is that we do not know anything about the anonymous geniuses (admittedly some millennia ago) whether: hen-wives, herders, fishers or hunters, who planted the rare wild Brassica oleracea from the western sea cliffs into what would later be called a kail-yird and carefully selected seed from it till they had created kail.

In so doing they created something that would become so important to Scottish culture the very word became a synonym for food or a meal. It also entered our stock of proverbial speech: when we annoy somebody we may "get wir kail through the reek" or "hae oor kail het", we go to work to "mak saut to oor kail" and when we interfere "we scaud wir lips wi ither folk's kail" old news is "cauld kail het agin" and everybody kens that "cauld kail is nae kitchen". Other proverbs include: "gin ye dinna steal yer neebor's kail dinna loup his dyke", "kale at hame is nae kitchie" and "the mair cooks the waur kale". It also gives us a name for that much disparaged genre of fiction, 'kail-yard' literature.

Most important among kale's effects is the fact that it saved generations of children, from whom we ultimately descend, from the 'spring disease', we now know as scurvy. Seasons have disappeared for us, now we have vegetables flown in from Kenya and South Africa. Many of us have forgotten that in a northern subsistence economy it is in spring that famine bites hardest. Kale survives a greater cold than most other vitamin rich foods and even if the leaves are reduced to slime by frost the casstock will sprout again early in spring. It is even available before (and in greater bulk than) those two other hungry gap standbys that we now spray with Glyphosate but that were carefully planted and tended in the past, Urtica dioica L. and Aegopodium podagraria L., nettles and ground elder.

The farm servants of the early 20th century may have felt hard done by when fed kail brose made with the bree from the kail served in the farmhouse but they probably got the greater benefit the greater part of the essential nutrients having been dissolved in the boiling water.

Casstocks, the stalks of the kale plant were a Halloween prop, long before neeps were common. Used as torch holders. Also pulled in the dark, with your eyes shut, to divine a future lover. The length and straightness of the stalk indicating a future partner’s height and figure, soil on the roots shows wealth, the bitter or sweet taste of the pith their temperament. In R. Burns's ' Merry Muses version of 'Cauld Kail in Aberdeen' he hints at a cruder use.

Cauld Kail in Aberdeen
From R. Burns version 1793

5th verse
There's cauld kail in Aberdeen,
And castocks in Strabogie;
When ilka lad maun hae his lass,
Then fye, gie me my coggie.

8th verse
For lasses now are nae sae blate
But they ken auld folk's out o' date,
And better playfare can they get
Than castocks in Strabogie.

From Lady Nairn's (Carolina Oliphant 1766-1845) 'temperance' version:
1st verse
"There's cauld kail in Aberdeen,
There's castocks in Stra'bogie,
And, morn and e'en, they're blythe and bein,
That haud them frae the cogie.
Now haud ye frae the cogie, lads,
O bide ye frae the cogie,
I'll tell ye true, ye'll never rue
O passin' by the cogie."

Non-medical uses of kail
As a food the leaves are usually available from autumn to late spring, and can be harvested all through the winter in all but the very coldest of seasons (survives down to -15c) and can be eaten raw or cooked. Young flowering shoots can also be eaten raw or cooked, picked before the flowers open, they are fairly tender and can be used as part of a mixed salad. When cooked, they have a flavour similar to sprouting broccoli.

Medicinal uses of kail
My main source for medical information gives 'no medicinal use known', for this plant, however I would think avoiding vitamin and mineral deficiency has a certain medical value.

Sources:
Plants For A Future, www.pfaf.org/index.html,
Buchan, David: Scottish Tradition, A collection of Scottish Folk-Literature, ISBN 0-7100-9531-7, London 1984.
Searchable World Wide Web Multilingual Multiscript Plant Name Database at www.plantnames.unimelb.edu.au/Sorting/Frontpage.html page www.plantnames.unimelb.edu.au/Sorting/Brassica_oleracea.html#sabellica

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