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
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'
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
Cauld Kail in Aberdeen
From R. Burns version 1793
There's cauld kail in Aberdeen,
And castocks in Strabogie;
When ilka lad maun hae his lass,
Then fye, gie me my coggie.
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:
"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
Plants For A Future,
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