Known since ancient Greece and Rome, the modern cabbage is a descendant of wild mustard. The Roman statesman Cato the Elder wrote of its medicinal properties, “It is the cabbage which surpasses all other vegetables.” The seventeenth century English physician and botanist Nicholas Culpeper recommended using cabbage to treat hoarseness, snake bites, kidney stones, liver disease, consumption, eye troubles, cankers, swelling, and other maladies. But this wealth of benefits is not without its drawbacks, as Culpeper points out:
I know not what metal their bodies were made of; this I am sure, Cabbages are extremely windy, whether you take them as meat or as medicine: yea, as windy meat as can be eaten, unless you eat bag-pipes or bellows, and they are but seldom eaten in our days; and Colewort flowers are something more tolerable, and the wholesomer food of the two.
While there are probably more sophisticated treatments for snakebite than the application of cabbage, it is certainly true that cabbage is good for you. One 100g serving contains over 60% of the recommended daily dose of vitamin C. It’s also very high in vitamin B6, folate, protein, and dietary fibre. Cabbages contain the amino acid glutamine, which is a strong, natural anti-inflammatory. Homeopathic treatments for peptic ulcers call for regular drinks of fresh cabbage juice.
In her wonderful book, The Joy of Cooking, Irma Rombauer has an entry “About Cabbage.” Here, she includes all the cabbage-related Brassicas: head cabbage, savoy, cauliflower and broccoli, Brussels sprouts, collards and kale, Swiss chard, “bok-choi and its better-known cousin Chinese cabbage, or pe tsai.” She then lists three recipes where the term “cabbage” includes all of these varieties, on their own or in combination. This speaks to the approach we have traditionally taken to Brassicas, but it is a disservice to their diversity.
The wild cabbage, in early European civilization, migrated as a staple food crop, and strains of it were established in the north, in Scandinavia and the British Isles. Some wild cabbage was cultivated in central Europe and the east, and also in the areas that became Portugal, Belgium, and Holland. Every time this staple food plant became established among farming cultures, it began to change through selective breeding. The end result of this travel and breeding over centuries is a modern, familiar spectrum of vegetables, often just referred to as “the Brassicas,” or Cole crops.
The cabbage was first brought to Canada by Jacques Cartier on his third voyage in 1541. Its first recorded appearance in the US was in the 1660s.
Through selective breeding, the single species Brassica oleracea was cultivated to produce common vegetable types that include collards and kale, Chinese broccoli, cauliflower, Romanesco broccoli, broccoflower, Brussels sprouts, and conventional broccoli. The closely related (genetically similar) species Brassica rapa includes mizuna, raab (rapini), Chinese cabbage, pac choi, and turnips.
In many cultures cabbage is a base ingredient, and examples are nearly too numerous to name. The leaves can be used to create cabbage rolls, chopped into cole slaw, and added to soups and stir-fries. Cabbage is frequently pickled or preserved to create sumptuous dishes from kim-chi to sauerkraut. The versatility of cabbage in the kitchen, coupled with its easy growth in all cool and temperate climates has left a legacy of folksy recipes.
Like other cold-hardy Brassicas, overwintered cabbage has great flavour and a subtle sweetness. Refrigerate cabbages as soon as possible, regardless of the time of year, and use plastic bags with holes cut for ventilation. Cabbage reacts with aluminum cookware, and creates a fairly intense smell while cooking, so use steel, glass, or ceramic pots. The smell increases the longer cabbage is cooked because its sugars are released when it boils. Slice cabbage thinly and cook it quickly for the best result.
Early cabbages for summer harvests grow quickly, to a smaller size in tighter spacing. Summer varieties don’t handle cold very well, so be sure to harvest them when they are ready, and well before frost. Set them out as transplants in late March, or direct sow them from April to the end of June. Early cabbages need the best soil and the most protection from insects (use lightweight row cover), but produce the most delicate heads.
Late cabbages take 90 — 120 days to develop, and are grown for storage or making fresh sauerkraut and kimchi. Don’t sow these ones before June or the heads will grow pointy and may split as the days get longer. Dutch and English growers have developed “very late” cabbage varieties, which develop in late fall to December from June sowings. These are ideal for winter harvesting. Some may hold until March. Late savoy cabbages (“savoy” refers to their crinkled leaves) are the hardiest of all for this purpose.
Overwintered varieties are meant to be harvested the following spring from early fall plantings. Planted in early September, the heads grow to around 15cm (6”) thick before the short daylight and cool temperatures slow them down. Side dress these with complete organic fertilizer in the spring, and harvest them in April and May before they bolt.
How to Grow Cabbage:
Difficulty: Cabbage is moderately easy to grow.
Timing: This is all about the variety you’re growing. Sow early cabbage indoors in March for transplanting from April to June. Cabbage is relatively hardy, so you can move them outdoors 3-4 weeks before the last average frost date after sowing 4-6 weeks earlier. The premise is to provide a warm atmosphere for germination, and then a cool climate for growing on. Direct sow overwintering cabbage outdoors in July.
Sowing: Sow 3-4 seeds in each spot (or pot if transplanting) where you want a plant to grow, and then thin to the strongest plant. Sow 5mm (¼”) deep.
Soil: Cabbage is a heavy feeder and requires steady growth. Use humus-rich soil amended with well-rotted manure. Mix ½ cup of complete organic fertilizer into the soil beneath each plant. Aim for a pH of 6.5 to 7.2. If the pH is lower than 6.5, add lime at least 3 weeks before planting. All cabbages need a fairly neutral soil. If the pH is 6.5 or lower, add lime three weeks prior to planting.
Growing: The goal is slow, steady growth through even watering and feeding. Heads of early varieties can split from over-maturity, rapid growth after heavy rain, or irrigation after a dry spell. Splits can be delayed by twisting the plant or cultivating deeply next to the row in order to break roots and slow growth down. Fall and winter varieties stand in the garden longer without splitting. If growth seems to slow, side-dress with a little more complete organic fertilizer.
Harvest: Cut heads when they feel hard. Leave the big outer leaves in the field, and use a sharp knife to separate the head.
Storage: Ideally, store cabbage just above freezing with high humidity and good air circulation. Root cellars are perfect for this. Young, green heads store the best. Eat or process damaged heads first, and only store the best ones.
Seed info: In optimum conditions, at least 80% of seeds will germinate. Soil temperature for germination: 10-30°C (50-85°F). Usual seed life: 3 years.
Growing for seed: Isolate from all other B. oleracea varieties by 1,500m if growing for seed.
Pests & Disease: Crop rotation is central to preventing problems. Do not plant cabbage in soil where any Brassicas have been grown in the past 4 years. Watch seedlings closely for any sign of disease, black stems, or roots with lumps. Recommended companion plants include celery, dill, onions, and potatoes. Celery is thought to improve cabbage growth and health. Clover inter-planted with cabbage may reduce cabbage aphids and cabbage worms by interfering with their colonization and attracting predatory ground beetles. Prevent damage from the caterpillars of the Small White butterfly by using lightweight row cover, and companion planting with umbelifers.