Saving Heirloom Collards

The new Heirloom Collard Project seeks to document and protect hard-to-find collard seeds throughout the nation.

| Spring 2017

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.

Brazilian Garlic Collards Recipe
Quick Southern-Style Collards Recipe

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.

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