Long before kale became a trending food, its decorative cousin was a garden star delivering a pop of color to fall’s graying landscape. Flowering kale is not only prized for its ruffled foliage and spectacular rosette, it’s one of only a few ornamental plants that actually thrives in cold weather. In fact, kale likes cool temperatures so much that it often stays attractive well into winter, making it a great choice for cool-season gardens and containers.
What is the difference between cabbage and kale?
A lot of people think cabbage and kale are the same, but technically they are not. Although they are members of the same species, Brassica oleracea (which also includes broccoli, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts), the two plants are structurally different. Cabbage is a multi-layered vegetable whose leaves come together to form a head.
By contrast, kale has upright leaves and a tight, inner rosette that resembles a flower.
Born to beautiful
Selectively bred to produce spectacular leaves and rosettes, ornamental kale comes in many shapes and sizes. The outer leaves, which are typically blue-green, can be wavy, ruffled, crinkled or curled. And the rosettes, which grow larger as temperatures cool, shift gradually from soft green to bright shades of pink, red, white, yellow and purple.
Different color rosettes of flowering kale
This vivid coloring and exotic form make ornamental kale a stunning addition to fall gardens where it complements other cool-season flowers such as mums, pansies, violas and primroses.
And best of all, once nighttime temperatures fall below 60 degrees, the rosettes start taking on increasingly vibrant colors. Ornamental kale usually reaches a crescendo of color just after the first frost, with some plants maintaining their intensity all the way until spring.
Ornamental kale only gets brighter as temperatures cool
Flowering kale requires very little maintenance and is bothered by few pests. Plants prefer moist, well-drained soil and regular feeding. For the best color, plant ornamental kale in full sun.
It’s best to buy large plants (one gallon size), since there won’t be much top growth after September. Keep spacing tight (10 to 12 inches) to encourage the florets to remain small and watch as daily, the leaves intensify in color.
Here are some of the more popular varieties:
Redbor is a tall variety with narrow, upright deep purple, ruffled leaves. It is the tallest kale grown and can reach as high as 3 feet tall. Aside from its interesting texture and stunning burst of color, it looks great in the garden massed behind smaller cool-season annuals like chrysanthemums, pansies and violas.
Kale Glamour Red won the 2011 All America Selections (AAS) award for Best Cool Season Bedding Plant. Its unique shiny leaves and intense color make it a standout among other standard varieties. The fringe-leaved variety has a magenta flower head surrounded by dark green leaves. Plants range in size from 10 to 12 inches.
Peacock series ornamental kale are large, open and frilly plants that can grow to 2 feet across. They feature deeply serrated, feather-like leaves that surround cream or red-toned centers. Extremely cold hardy, they can survive even the harshest winters.
Pigeon Series (Pigeon Pink and Pigeon Red Pigeon Purple and Pigeon White) ornamental kale most closely resemble cabbage with their tight rosettes of light pink, dark red or creamy white. The round-shaped plants have wavy outer leaves that remain medium to dark green while the flower-like centers change color.
Osaka Pink, Osaka White and Osaka Red are often termed ornamental cabbage due to their smooth, flat leaves and tightly-packed florets. The plants produce layers of wavy edged leaves that remain green while the plants’ center rosettes change to bright purple, pink or cream.
Ideas for designing with flowering kale
Due to its large size, flowering kale looks great when planted alone in single pots. It also works well when massed in the garden, particularly when different varieties are combined to form patterns. The plants really shine in a parterre garden, where the deep green, miniature leaves of the surrounding evergreen shrubbery act as a great counterpoint to the colorful, broad-leaved ornamentals.
A parterre garden I designed in Maryland
In larger containers and planter boxes, stunning compositions can be created from the taller, frilly purple and green kale varieties and the rounder, broad-leaf Osaka. Here, the trailing ends of bright green lysimachia soften the mix.
In this smaller pot, I’ve combined baby kale with soft peach stock flower, apricot diascia and lime green lysimachia to complement the border plantings of heucheras, hostas and ferns.
Pot with flowering kale by Here By Design
Since ornamental kale maintains its color well into winter, it makes a great addition to any cold-weather container. Here, a creamy white variety is paired with weeping evergreen foliage, pinecones and yellow catkins in a stunning winter arrangement.
In the garden, deep purple kales like Redbor pair well with salmon chrysanthemums and ornamental grasses such as Maiden grass that feature creamy white plumes.
Flowering kales also mix well with plants that have similar toned foliage, such as heucheras, purple fountain grass and coleus. Here, a lime green potato vine sets up a vivid color contrast.
To learn more about ornamental kale, its varieties and how to care for them, check out this great website, gardenartisans.com.