Growing Heirloom Cabbage

Top-producing varieties and growing tips for growing heirloom cabbage.

  • Late Flat Dutch is a classic cabbage with hefty heads.
    Photo courtesy Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds;
  • Aubervilliers’ crinkled texture gives it an appetizing look.
    Photo courtesy Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds;
  • Early Jersey Wakefield’s conical head with compact growth habit and light to medium green leaves.
    Photo courtesy Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds;
  • Heirloom varieties of Savoy are a bit hard to locate, but January King and Perfection Drumhead (pictured here) are in the American seed trade.
    Photo courtesy Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds;
  • Finely crinkled Perfection Drumhead was introduced before 1880.
    Photo courtesy Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds;

Cabbage is one of the most unique, beautiful, and versatile of our vegetable crops.

The cabbage head is comprised of a series of modified leaves tightly wrapped around a central bud and surrounded by stiff outer leaves in beautiful hues of blue, grey, and green with various degrees of bloom and prominent venation. It is a spectacular ornamental plant.

Cabbage’s culinary history spans millennia of European cuisine and geography from England and Ireland to Ukraine and south to Italy and even Turkey. Cabbage was originally cultivated by the Romans, and it was one of their favorite vegetables.

As a food substance, it has been sometimes maligned as simple fare for economically disadvantaged groups. Because of its ease of production, good yields, and keeping abilities, it was readily adopted by all sorts of people. Cabbage and potatoes became associated with the 18th-century Irish, providing the basis of simple and nutritious meals in dishes such as colcannon (mashed potatoes and cabbage) and with the addition of pork as in the traditional bacon and cabbage dish. Alas corn beef and cabbage is an American dish and owes its inception to Irish immigrants in the United Sates. Various forms of cabbage salad are traditional in Europe and elsewhere, familiar to us as coleslaw. Today the cabbage salad repertoire has greatly expanded with dozens of variants by inventive chefs.

I grew up eating stuffed cabbage, called “holishkes” by Eastern European Jews and “galumpkis” by Polish people, and freshly made coleslaw from the nearby German delicatessen. My love of cabbage really bloomed when I began growing this plant and turning heads into homemade sauerkraut. The ingredients were salt and age, nothing else.

Cabbage is a member of the Cruciferae or mustard family and is close kin with half a dozen other nutrient-rich anticancer plants like broccoli, kale, and Brussels sprouts, all belonging to the same wild species Brassica oleracea, which originated along limestone cliffs around the Mediterranean. Cabbage is B. oleracea capitata from the Latin capitatus, literally “having a head.”

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