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What is Ornamental Cabbage?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 21, 2024
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Ornamental cabbage is a varietal of cabbage which is grown for its colorful, showy leaves. It is also sometimes known as ornamental or flowering kale. Just like table cabbage, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, kale, cauliflower, and kohlrabi, ornamental cabbage is classified as Brassica oleracea, and it has acquired a distinctive look through years of assiduous cultivation. It is also technically edible, although it can get extremely bitter and the leaves tend to turn a dull gray when they are cooked.

There are a number of varieties of ornamental cabbage. As a general rule, the plants have tight, well rounded heads and ruffly foliage. Their colors range from white to red, with tones of pink, purple, and green in many varietals and ornamental cabbage is often striped with rich streaks of color. When it is well tended, the plant can be used to make a splash of color in the garden, and it can also line beds, walkways, and paths.

One of the primary advantages of ornamental cabbage is that it is a cool weather plant, preferring the temperatures of fall and winter. When other plants in the garden may be dormant or dying off, ornamental cabbage can be bright and vibrant. If you live in an area which only gets light frosts during the year, ornamental cabbage can persist through the winter, providing a bright note during dark, cold months. The plant can also be grown indoors, if you have a cool, brightly lit room.

All ornamental cabbages are grown from seed. If you want to start your own plants, you can buy seeds from a local gardening store; the seed package will usually have a photograph illustrating the color and form of that particular variety of ornamental cabbage. Plant the seeds in July or August, either directly in the ground or indoors in pots if your summers are hot. Keep the soil moist and well amended with compost, and weed out straggly plants as the ornamental cabbage grows. If you start plants indoors, move them out in the mid fall so that they have time to acclimatize to cooler temperatures. A light frost will actually make the color more saturated and intense, but you don't want to shock the plants by planting them in the late fall, when temperatures are dramatically cooler than they are indoors.

You can also buy ornamental cabbage seedlings in packs. If you get seedlings, choose the strongest looking, most symmetrical plants, and set them out in the garden in the mid fall. As the ornamental cabbage grows, you may want to trim trailing leaves to keep the plants tidy. The plants will go to seed in warmer weather; if you like the varietal you are growing, save the seeds to plant in the late summer.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is ornamental cabbage, and how does it differ from regular cabbage?

Ornamental cabbage, also known as flowering kale, is a type of Brassica oleracea primarily grown for its aesthetic appeal rather than consumption. Unlike regular cabbage, which forms a tight head, ornamental cabbage has loose, broad leaves in vibrant colors like white, pink, purple, and green. It's bred for its ornate foliage, which becomes more vivid with cooler temperatures.

Can you eat ornamental cabbage, and is it safe?

Yes, ornamental cabbage is edible and safe to eat; however, it's not commonly consumed due to its bitter taste. It's the same species as edible cabbage but has been cultivated for its looks rather than flavor. If you choose to eat it, it's best to cook it to soften the leaves and reduce bitterness.

How do you care for ornamental cabbage to ensure it thrives?

To care for ornamental cabbage, plant it in well-draining soil with full to partial sunlight. It prefers cooler temperatures, ideally between 60-70°F, and its colors become more pronounced with light frosts. Regular watering is essential, but avoid waterlogging. Fertilize lightly, and watch for pests like aphids and caterpillars that can be managed with appropriate treatments.

When is the best time to plant ornamental cabbage for optimal growth?

The best time to plant ornamental cabbage is in late summer or early fall. This timing allows the plants to establish themselves while the weather is still warm and then develop their full color as temperatures drop. In milder climates, they can even be planted in winter for early spring blooms.

How long does ornamental cabbage last, and can it survive winter?

Ornamental cabbage is a biennial, typically lasting for one season as an annual in most gardens. It can survive light frosts and even snow, making it a robust addition to winter gardens. In milder climates, it can last through the winter and into spring, providing color when most other plants are dormant.

Are there any environmental benefits to planting ornamental cabbage?

Ornamental cabbage can provide environmental benefits similar to other leafy greens. It can contribute to biodiversity by offering habitat and food for wildlife like insects. Additionally, like many plants, it helps purify the air and can prevent soil erosion when planted in groups, thanks to its root system stabilizing the ground.

AllThingsNature is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a AllThingsNature researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By anon76481 — On Apr 10, 2010

How tall do they get? Did I miss that info?

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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