About 5 years ago, a friend gave me some tree collard seeds from Montenegro. Some years since planting those seeds, I’ve selected one seedling that stands out from the rest to name, propagate and distribute. I have ostentatiously and awesomely dubbed it Peasant King.
Tree collards are a perennial vegetable also variously known by other names like Tree Kale, Palm Cabbage, Walking Stick Kale, Tree Cabbage and no doubt more. They are something like collard greens or Broccoli leaves, except that they grow all year for multiple years without flowering eventually becoming very tall. They could be compared to regular collards, but generally are heavier in texture and maybe stronger flavored. I also suspect they might be more nutritious, but who knows without an analysis, and I don't know that it's been done. Tree Collards are a member of the species Brassica Oleracea, which includes, Broccoli, most Kales (not siberian or red russian, which are Brassica napus species), Cauliflower, Kohlrabi, Brussel's Sprouts, Cabbage and Collards. Many people are surprised to find out that these are all the same species of plant and and as such can inter-pollinate. The only reason that lets say a cauliflower and a kale plant look and act so different is that they have been bred for different characteristics for a very long time.
"In Jersey, the Palm Cabbage is much cultivated, and reaches a considerable height. In La Vendée, the Cæsarean Cow Cabbage grows sixteen feet high." PLANT LORE, LEGENDS, and LYRICS, RICHARD FOLKARD, JUN. 1884 http://www.gutenberg.org/files/44638/44638-h/44638-h.htm
Tree Collards are traditionally grown in various parts of the world as fodder for both humans and animals. They probably originated in the British Isles. A variety referred to locally as Purple Tree Collard has been grown in my area by both old and young back to the land types for a long time, but they are generally propagated by cuttings, not seeds. That is because the particular purple tree collard that is grown around here rarely sets any seed. Flowering is not very common to start with and they flower only weakly when they flower at all. Also, they don’t seem to pollinate themselves and I suspect they may only set seed when pollinated by another genetically unique variety of tree collard or other member of the Brassica Oleracea group.
When I got these rare and unique seeds, I saw it as a chance to find out if the trait of resistance to flowering was transferable, with an eye to selecting out some new perennial varieties worthy of propagation by cuttings. I grew out around 35 new plants in some out-of-the-way long term test beds. I was impressed early in their growth that many of the plants seemed more vigorous than the standard tree collard I had been growing for years. I wondered if our tree collards had picked up virus or genetic damage that caused them to grow more weakly. I won’t be 100% sure if the average plant is more vigorous unless I grow multiple varieties side by side with the old type. What I'll probably do instead is yank out all of my old Purple Tree Collards so that they don’t infect my new varieties if they are carrying something infectious.
Out of those 35-ish plants, I have selected just one so far that is clearly superior by a combination of leaf size, color, shape, vigor, uprightness and resistance to bolting. It has beautiful, large, dark purple leaves. While most of the seedlings more or less resemble the purple tree collard grown here, they vary in color, with a few being more or less purple. The old cuttings everyone grows here are partially purple, but probably average 50% or more green. My new selection is among the most completely purple of this seed population, though, like all of them, there are green patches. Keep in mind that the color trait will vary somewhat with weather, soil and culture. The leaf shape is a little more frilly and rounded as well. All in all, it stands out from the crowd in it's physical attributes, and if random leaves are picked from all of the plants, it's leaves are easily distinguishable from the rest
The original plant is now about 7 feet tall at 4 years old. it is not the tallest, but that may be just as well. I think a combination of tall and short types might be best scenario in terms of design options for gardens. It has resisted flowering through at least two hot California summers with no water, and two of the worst drought years in living memory. Those trial beds have also gotten very little fertilizer past the initial establishment. The conditions I’ve grown these in shows out just how tough these plants are. We have no significant rain for usually about 5 or 6 months of the year, depending on the year, yet the percentage of plant loss to drouth was not all that high. Heavy environmental stress often causes plants to flower, probably as a reproductive imperative- as in, "I might die, I better make babies to pass no my genes". Growing these under these challenging conditions creates heavy selection pressure to weed out the weak plants.
I named the variety Peasant King because it is tall, with a beautiful crown of royal purple leaves, and tree collards are the epitome of healthy old school peasant food. My home girl Sophia Bates acquired these seeds, which were gifted to her by the Matron of the farm she was staying at in Montenegro. She said that they are a regular staple among the farming folks of that region and are grown in every nook and cranny of the homestead that is not used for anything else. They are pretty neat. A tough resilient plant that is easy to propagate from cuttings, is very nutritious and grows with little care in out of the way spots. To boot, it looks cool. I think further trial will show Peasant King to be more upright and handsome than the usual collards. Only further trial will tell us for sure, or whether it will show out some other problems such as susceptibility to pests or disease.
So what’s the down side? Some people don’t like them for one. They are also not very hardy. John Jeavons of Ecololgy action, a long time promoter of tree collard growing, says the usual purple tree collard can freeze out below 18 degrees Fahrenheit for extended periods I do not recommend trying to grow them in areas where they don’t really want to grow, but see below for possibly more hardy options. Being perennial, they can be host to long term pests, like aphids. I have gotten aphids and if I recall, maybe some fungal disease on my Purple Tree Collards in the past, but they always seem to outgrow everything eventually. Once I can grow more of them and get them to some other people, we will find out how they fare in the long run. I hope to have cuttings of Peasant King to offer in the next year or two. I should be rooting cuttings within a couple of months to grow more plants, to make yet more cuttings to distribute. The first available cuttings will go to a combination of influencer types and content creators and as usual my patreon supporters. Sometime after that I’ll probably distribute cuttings for at least a year or two as long as it keeps performing well here.
In doing research I ran across a blog comment somewhere by Chris Hommanics saying that he has been working with tree collard hybrids for some time. He had actually contacted me last year about getting me some apple scions, which I unfortunately wasn't able to take advantage of. Anyway, small world. It turns out he is offering a population of hybrid Tree Collard seed that he’s been working on. It is a randomly mixed hybrid pool of tree collards mixed with Kales and other oleracea types. The seeds are available for experimentation and can be acquired here. This seed offers a much more diverse genetic range, with improved texture and varying form. This looks like a really promising project. I also ran across a video by Plant Abundance on YouTube, showing a kale, tree collard hybrid which he grew from chance pollinations with Kale in his garden. I think the future of tree collards is likely more along these lines than the more traditional inbred line I’m working with. Only the future will tell if that is all good, but I’d say expect to see an explosion of tree Brassica diversity over the next two decades. The internet makes spreading knowledge and plant material so much easier than it used to be and new people are inspired every day to do backyard breeding and selection. Even a few years ago when I started this project, there wasn’t all the much about tree collards out there on the web. Now there are lots of videos and blog post. The internet has been good to the humble tree collard.
My plan from here is to germinate a bunch more of this Montenegran tree collard seed. This time, I’m going to do a pre-selection in the flats, choosing only the healthiest looking vigorous seedlings. Then I’ll plant those in trial beds on a close spacing, of maybe 6 or 8 inches to do a second selection. The winners will be transplanted to trial beds and once established, I’ll neglect them, just like I neglected the current trial beds and see what survives and thrives. In the name of diversity and resilience, I would eventually like to select out three or more plants worthy of naming and propagating from cuttings. The seed stock I have here would also ideally be crossed with the common local purple tree collard as well, for some genetic refreshment, diversity and invigoration to the line, but I may leave that up to someone else. After that, if I continue working with them, it will probably be to hybridize in some other Oleracea varieties, like kales and maybe purple cabbage, and start growing those out. I think Chris Homanics said that about 25% of hybrids inherit the perennial trait of resistance to flowering, and I think my seedlings might show a pretty similar rate of inheritance of that characteristic. Transference of perenniality was my biggest question going into this project. Now that we know that the trait is transferable, even when crossed with other B. oleracea types that tend to seed quickly, it opens up a huge window of opportunity to work with perennial tree Kales and Collards.
If you want to experiment with breeding and or selection, tree collards should cross with other members of the Brassica oleracea group, including many kales, broccoli, cauliflower, collards and Brussel’s sprouts. There are hybrids of Brassica napus with Brassica oleracea, but I'm not sure how easy that is to achieve. The idea of a cross with the napus Russian or Siberian Kale is very intriguing though. Read more about those inter-species hybrids here.
Please don't contact me about cuttings unless maybe you are a collector or breeder that will in some way ultimately benefit others by distribution, education, research or breeding. If I have cuttings, they will be offered in the web store as they become available. Since the variety is named, it should get into circulation from other sources eventually, as long as it proves it's merit over time. I still have to look into options for release to the public. I'm going to check out the open source seed initiative, an organization which one of my gardening heroes Carol Deppe is involved in, but I still need to think about whether I think their whole concept is a good idea or not. My intuition tells me there is something wrong with the framework of the project, and that is usually the start of something lol. I'm also not sure if they do vegetatively propagated varieties. I have my own ideas about what the future of seeds and perennials, plant breeding, legal issues, the plant breeding community, and the broader gardening and orcharding culture could look like, but that's another bag of worms.