Ornamental cabbage and kale (Brassica oleracea) can add wonderful texture and color to fall gardens and containers. Sometimes they are referred to as flowering cabbage and kale, but their flowers are insignificant and they are really grown for their lovely foliage, which has shades of red, white, pink and purple. Although they are considered edible, they tend to have a bitter taste and are typically used simply as garnishes.
Technically, ornamental cabbages and kales are all kales because the cabbage cultivars do not actually form a head. Horticulturists, however, have become accustomed to differentiating the two by their leaf form. Ornamental kales have deeply cut, curly, frilly or ruffled leaves, while ornamental cabbages have broad, flat leaves edged in a contrasting color. Kales are further broken down into fringe leaf (finely ruffled leaf margins) or feather leaf (finely serrated, deeply notched edges) cultivars. Cabbages and kales both usually grow approximately 12 inches wide.
Plant ornamental cabbage and kale in a sunny location once cool weather has arrived. If planted too early, they tend to get leggy. Their colorful pigments will begin to intensify as temperatures start falling below 50 degrees F. These plants tend to not grow much after planting, especially if root bound, so it’s recommended you buy a plant near the ultimate size you want. Select plants with a short stem, uniform leaves and no holes in the foliage. Ornamental cabbages and kales prefer a rich, somewhat acidic, well-drained, moist soil. The soil should be allowed to slightly dry out between waterings, but don’t allow it to completely dry out. Overly wet soils may cause the plants to rot.
Some recommended cultivars are:
-- Chidori kale series: purple foliage, extremely curly leaf margins, creamy white or magenta centers.
-- Color Up cabbage series: upright growth, green leaves with white, pink or fuchsia centers.
-- Nagoya kale series: heavily crinkled leaves, tight rosette centers in fuchsia, lavender, yellow-green or creamy white.
-- Osaka cabbage series: fast-growing, compact plants with blue-green, semi-waved leaves with pink, red or white centers.
-- Peacock kale series: compact hybrids with deeply serrated, feathery red or white leaves.
-- Tokyo cabbage series: nearly perfectly round with smooth, blue-green outer leaves and soft pink, red or white centers.
Use ornamental cabbages and kales as edging plants or in containers. They look wonderful with pansies and mums or in front of grasses, sedums, or asters. Also consider incorporating some ornamental mustard, which has bold and showy purple-toned foliage.
Smith is a University of Illinois Extension Master Gardener in McLeanCounty. For horticulture questions or information about the Master Gardener program, call 309-663-8306 or visit www.mcleanextension.org.