Of Cabbages and Kings

ornamental kale

“The time has come,” the Walrus said,

“To talk of many things:
. . . of cabbages and kings.” (from Alice in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll)
It is no wonder that cabbages make an appearance in Alice in Wonderland since they are among the true wonders of the world.  Alice in Wonderland is full of fantasy and, to those who know something about botany, there is nothing more fantastically fanciful than a cabbage, which is nothing less than the fattest leaf bud to be found among the quarter million species of plants that inhabit the Earth.
The cabbage plant and its relatives are the most notorious GMOs (genetically modified organisms) in history.  While it is appropriate that the Walrus quoted above should associate cabbages with kings (since the cabbage and its kin — broccoli, cauliflower, kale, kohlrabi, Brussels sprouts, Romanesco, and collard greens — are the unquestioned royal family of the winter vegetable garden), it should never be forgotten that the ancestry of the cabbage clan is neither natural nor divine but rather a testimony to stark human modification and manipulation.
Next time you are driving west on the Ventura (101) Freeway, not long after you pass the San Diego (405) Freeway, look to the north and you will see a dazzling display of wild mustard, whose brilliant butter yellow flowers are a reliable adornment of our open spaces following winter rain. Believe it or not, it was a wild mustard species not much different from this same freeway mustard that was the antecedent to all the winter crops mentioned above.
These crops are all cultivars (cultivated varieties) of the same botanical species, Brassica oleracea. The selection process was started around 2,500 years ago in Central Europe.  Kale and collard greens, developed from wild mustard plants that showed larger and thicker than average leaves, were the earliest of the new edibles.  Although rudimentary cabbages were consumed several thousand years ago in lands as diverse as Egypt and China, it wasn’t until approximately 1200, again in Europe, that round cabbages and Brussels sprouts were selected from collard greens that had unusually large terminal (cabbage) or axillary (Brussels sprouts) leaf buds.  In the 1400s, a type of kale with an especially thick stem was developed into kohlrabi and in the 1500s another kale with especially large flower clusters became a new crop known as broccoli.  Soon after that, cauliflower was born from one broccoli cultivar while broccoflower came from another.  There are two broccoflower types.  One has the appearance of a greenish cauliflower while the other, known as Romanesco, might be labeled “rhino’s delight” on account of its horn-like appendages.
Finally, two additional Brassica oleracea cultivars, ornamental cabbage and ornamental kale, are meant for viewing as opposed to eating.  Grown for their colorful leaves, whether smooth (ornamental cabbage) or frilly (ornamental kale), each is available in a foliar spectrum that includes rose, pink, red, purple, cream, and white.
Aside from the many wild mustard offshoots (sic), there are other notable members of what is known as the cabbage or mustard family (Brassicaceae).  Turnip greens, arugula, and water cress are grown for their leaves while rutabega and radish are famous for their dreidel shaped roots and the related horseradish root serves as the bitter herb at many  Passover seders.  White mustard, black mustard, and brown mustard are grown for their seeds, which are ground up into the eponymous spice that is a sine qua non for hot dog eaters.  White mustard is used for making yellow table mustard while Dijon mustard comes from brown mustard.  You can find mustard seed packets at nurseries and through online seed merchants.
Incidentally, the wild mustard mentioned earlier is not all bad.  If you happen to be taking a trip to Napa Valley in the coming days, you will notice a sea of gold among the dormant grapevines.  That gold is coming from wild mustard’s annual floral eruption.  Wild mustard seed arrived in northern California in the 1800‘s courtesy of Russian settlers who, unknowingly, carried it in sacks of wheat that they imported to their new home.  Yet some Napa wine growers, who once went to great lengths to keep the mustard out of their vineyards, have had a change of heart.  Mustard is highly effective at keeping the soil aerated and at mining minerals deep in the earth.  So now, just as the mustard finishes its bloom in March, and just before the vines begin to grow again, the mustard is plowed into the Earth for soil conditioning purposes.
While sweet alyssum (Lobularia maritima) may be the most familiar ornamental member of the mustard family, wallflowers (Erysimum spp.) are the most spectacularly floriferous.  ‘Bowle’s Mauve’ is a head-turning, heart-stopping perennial like no other.  We think of wallflowers as those who are excluded from social activities due to their shyness when, in fact, the name comes from an imprisoned 14-century maiden who fell to her death while trying to escape over a wall to meet her lover.
It turns out that wallflowers, at least in a garden, are anything but shy, making quite a statement among those perennials that flower in a most uninhibited and ostentatious manner.
Wallflowers bloom practically without interruption until they die, metabolically exhausted by their insistence on pushing out flowers without interruption.
The most stunning wallflower is a variety known as Erysimum ‘Bowles Mauve.’ The color of its flower is somewhere in the lilac to lavender-pink spectrum, and it can grow in sunny to lightly shaded exposures. It forms a symmetrical mound with nothing but flowers visible when it blooms full throttle in the spring, and then persists for a few years, flowering on and off in all seasons.
English wallflowers (Erysimum cheiri) appear in yellow, orange, red or burgundy and are mildly fragrant. Strictly speaking, they are also perennials but, in hot summer Valley gardens, they look their best for only one growing season. Wallflowers have a modest stature of about 2 feet and combine well with other perennials such as Marguerite daisies and the deep-purple flowered, nearly black-leafed and pleasantly scented heliotrope (Heliotropium arborescens ‘Black Beauty’).
Tip of the Week:  If you are looking for a California lilac (Ceanothus spp.) for your winter to early spring garden, consider the ‘Joyce Coulter’ hybrid.  ‘Joyce Coulter’ can take heavier soil and withstand pruning better than most other Ceanothus cultivars.
It is a mounding plant considered to be a ground cover that may be kept between two and three feet tall through pruning.  It will spread out horizontally up to twelve feet.  It is mildly deer resistant, highly drought tolerant although it will accept some irrigation, and has no problem with freezing weather.

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