Although collards (Brassica oleracea) originated in Europe, they’ve become known as a specialty of the southern United States where the cooking influences and preferences of enslaved or indigenous communities made these leafy greens a regional specialty. Collards became widely adopted as the primary green vegetable grown in many southern regions. Collards — or “greens” — have long served an important nutritional role for people in the southeast and may have even saved lives over the years. They’re extremely nutritious (outpaced only by spinach in nutritional value) and will produce greens for up to 10 months of the year. They’re a biennial that’s both more cold-tolerant and more heat-tolerant than most other greens. But collards don’t just grow in the southern U.S.; they grow as well or better than cabbage, kale, spinach, and turnip greens in most climates.
A Road Trip to Remember
Recognizing that heirloom collards were becoming harder and harder to find, four men covered thousands of miles, between 2003 and 2007, searching for heirloom collard plants by word-of-mouth and by reading newspapers, going to small-town collard festivals, and visiting restaurants where collards are the only greens served.
After the journey, road trip member and United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) plant geneticist Mark Farnham grew more than 60 heirloom collard cultivars in trial gardens at a USDA Agricultural Research Station and published multiple papers on his findings, including the 2007 article "Neglected Landraces of Collard from the Carolinas." Two of the other road trip members, Edward Davis and John Morgan of Emory & Henry College, wrote Collards: A Southern Tradition from Seed to Table to tell the stories of these cultivars and the gardeners who steward these special seeds. Davis and Morgan noted diversity among the collard seed savers: black and white, men and women. Not so diverse, however, was the age of seed savers. Many of these stewards were old, and some were really old. The average age was 70, and most of them didn’t have family, friends, or neighbors willing or able to keep growing their particular family collard into the future.
This stewardship age crisis is bad enough, but it’s not the only problem. For decades, big seed businesses have been gobbling up small growers and discontinuing thousands of traditional, open-pollinated collard cultivars in favor of hybrid seeds. Today, only five open-pollinated, non-hybrid collard cultivars are commonly available in the U.S. seed trade: ‘Georgia Green,’ ‘Champion,’ ‘Vates,’ ‘Morris Heading,’ and ‘Green Glaze.’
Heirloom collards are living history; they’re passed down over generations within families and communities, often developing unique adaptations to a specific place or traditional cultural use. As Morgan and Davis say in their book, saving collard seed is “the essential act in food heritage.” Imagine roots music with no musicians. Southerners who appreciate collards are losing their last artists, and like roots music needs someone to pick up the guitar and learn the tunes, collards need someone to pick up a hoe and learn the art of seed saving to carry them forward.
How Can I Help?
Luckily, there’s a growing group of farmers and gardeners who are preserving these special cultivars and bringing them back to kitchens, markets, and restaurants in the South and beyond. Helping to fuel the collard revival is the Heirloom Collard Project, a new effort whose goal is to collect and share heirloom collard seeds and their stories so the hardy greens can be grown, saved, and protected for generations to come. The Heirloom Collard Project was fueled by a generous seed donation from the USDA and started as a partnership between Seed Savers Exchange and Southern Exposure Seed Exchange that has grown to include Sow True Seed and a number of experienced seed savers. The organization hopes to become a self-sustaining network of heirloom collard seed stewards who preserve the diverse botanical and cultural heritage of collards so they never reach such critically low numbers again.
The Heirloom Collard Project has a place for everyone who’s interested in growing or eating this old-time green, including home gardeners, experienced seed savers, chefs, and more. Seeds for more than 20 of these critically rare heirloom cultivars will be available in fall and winter of 2017 via sign-ups at Heirloom Collards and in the Seed Savers Exchange Yearbook. Novice seed savers may want to consider practicing with more common cultivars first, and then, as they gain confidence, they can sign up to become seed-saving stewards.
How to Save Collard Seeds
Species: Brassica oleracea
Crosses with: Collards may cross with any Brassica oleracea, which includes Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, kohlrabi, kale, and most broccolis.
Isolation distance: Collards require isolation by at least 1/2 mile from any Brassica oleracea plants to save pure seeds. Because collards are biennials, the isolation distance is necessary during flowering and seed production the spring after planting.
Timing: As biennials, collards make flowers and produce seed in the second year after going through a minimum period of winter chill (vernalization). In practice, this means plants grown in fall will make seed the following spring. This is helpful for seed savers, as crops that cross with collards may be grown alongside them in fall.
Vernalizing: Collards usually require 10 to 12 weeks of vernalization (temperatures below 50 degrees Fahrenheit). Most areas in the southeastern United States achieve this cold treatment in the garden without killing the plants. In areas with extended low winter temperatures, smaller plants (8 to 12 inches) are more cold-tolerant and also easier to protect with mulch and row cover. In Zone 10 or higher, plants may not experience enough cold to flower.
Spacing: Collards get quite large during seed production, so allow 18 to 24 inches between plants in rows 36 inches apart. If needed, harvest or move some plants to make space. Stake the large flower stalks, which can reach 5 to 6 feet high, to keep them off the ground.
Pollination: Yellow, cross-shaped collard flowers have both male and female parts that are self-incompatible. They require insect pollination from wasps, flies, and bees.
Minimum Population: For home gardens, viable seed can be saved from as few as five plants, but growing 12 to 20 plants is more common. If growing to preserve genetic diversity, 80 or more plants work better.
Seed Harvest: The seed pods (siliques) turn tan to light brown when dry; harvest before they begin to split and spill seeds. Mature seeds are dark brown. Place harvested pods, branches, or whole plants on a tarp or in a bucket or trash can to capture seeds as they dry. Protect drying plants from rain and dew. Plants should dry for five to seven days, or until the seed is too hard to dent with a fingernail. Thresh by hand or beat against the sides of the trash can, and then winnow or use screens for further cleaning.
‘Miss Annie Pearl Counselman’ Collards
Tom Lambard of Mobile, Alabama, began to steward this cultivar in 2012 after his friend, Joe Stringer, introduced him to Miss Annie Pearl Counselman, a 94-year-old gardener who lives in Clarke County, Alabama. Tom later donated a seed sample of this cultivar to Seed Savers Exchange in 2015.
When Tom and Joe met with Miss Annie Pearl, they heard the cultivar’s story. Miss Annie Pearl said that many years ago, she and her husband were living in New Prospect, a community in Clarke County, Alabama. A new preacher, Brother Tyson, had recently come to their Baptist church. The preacher’s wife came to visit and brought some collard seeds as a gift; Miss Annie Pearl has been growing and saving them ever since. She figured she must have gotten the seeds from the preacher’s wife at least 60 years ago, because her own children (now all retired) were small at the time. Miss Annie Pearl gave Tom some seeds from a plastic bag in her freezer labeled “Tyson Collards 1998.” However, Tom requested that Seed Savers Exchange call the cultivar ‘Miss Annie Pearl Counselman’ because, as he said, “after 60-something years, I think that’s what they are.”
When he was young, Tom learned to cook collards from an elderly African American man who was known as the “Collard King” in Clarke County. Tom’s technique, which he uses for all collards, is to cut off the thick stem from the bottom of the collard leaves, roll the leaves up lengthwise, and chiffonade the rolls into 1/4-inch strips. He then puts some salt pork in a big pot with a little bit of water and cooks it until the salt pork renders. Next, he rinses the collards a few times and adds them to the pot with about 1/2 inch of water, adding more water when necessary, where the collards simmer until done (approximately an hour). When the collards are done, he pours 1/4 cup melted bacon grease over the collards and finishes them with salt, pepper, and vinegar. Tom says he could eat collards two or three times per week, but because they take so long to make, he only cooks them every few weeks.
‘Ole Timey Blue’ Collards
This cultivar came to Seed Savers Exchange in 1989 from Ralph Blackwell of Jasper, Alabama. Ralph was raised on a farm in nearby Fayette County, where his relatives had been growing this blue collard cultivar for as long as he could remember. Ralph and his brother, Barry, recall that they always called it by the name ‘Ole Timey Blue.’ Their mother, Ira Blackwell, grew this cultivar in the 1930s, and the family liked the taste of it better than the green-leafed cultivars.
Ralph’s family typically planted their collards at the beginning of September when bugs are less of a problem. He reported that the plants sweeten up after they've gone through a frost. When Ralph was younger, his mother made a type of kraut from the leaves.
‘North Carolina Yellow’ Collards
Hal Bridges of Midville, Georgia, donated this collard cultivar to Seed Savers Exchange in 2001. Hal described the cultivar as a “local favorite in North Carolina, received from a friend’s uncle who also lived in the state.”
This cultivar was a Seed Savers Exchange staff favorite for taste in 2014. It has a broccoli-type flavor that’s sweet and lacks bitterness. Plants are 11 to 20 inches tall and 23 to 30 inches wide. Plants tend to form a loose head later in the season. Stem color is light green, and the leaves are yellow-green with a few blue-green leaves mixed in and a white mid-vein. Leaves tend to curl upward, and there’s high uniformity among plants. This cultivar matures early in the season and is not affected by black rot, as adjacent collards were when grown at Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah, Iowa.
When Naomi Willis of Rocky Mount, North Carolina, donated her collard seeds to Seed Savers Exchange in 1987, she wrote, “For about 60 years or more, my mother used these seeds from her mother to raise collards for summer greens and also winter." Counting back from 1987, Naomi’s mother probably grew the cultivar beginning about 1927, but Naomi didn’t know where or how her grandmother originally got the seeds.
Naomi recalled that as a child she was given a small, empty milk can that contained a mixture of water and kerosene, in which she was to deposit pests she’d picked off the collards each day. She hated the job but was paid 5 cents for each full can. Naomi also commented in her seed donation letter, “The summer flavor is a little different from what it is after a few frosts send the sap down.”
Naomi says the plants will grow as big as a washtub (about 3 feet across) and have shorter stalks than the ‘Georgia’ cultivar. She saves the nicest three or four plants to grow out for seed the next year. The bloom stalk produces yellow flowers, and this cultivar is not a true cabbage collard because some of the leaves have purple edges. Collard worms (cabbage butterfly larvae) and terrapin bugs do affect the plants.
Ira Wallace is an employee owner of the cooperative Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, where she grows, cooks, and markets heirloom collards. A Central Virginia Master Gardener, Ira co-organizes the Heritage Harvest Festival at Monticello, and is the author of Guide to Vegetable Gardening in the Southeast.