The gardener's never-ending search for color, even in the bleak months of fall and winter, has brought cabbage and kale out of the kitchen and into the garden.
With the help of hybridizers, these peasant vegetables have been transformed into the colorful stars of late fall.
Their blue-green outer leaves can enclose gem-like centers that run the rainbow from creamy white and yellow to deep red, touching on pink and lavender in between. Or their deeply cut and spiky foliage can look like something fanciful from a coral reef.
"Kale originated as wild species in the Mediterranean, but it was the Japanese who first selected and continue to breed the many beautiful ornamental forms we grow these days," said Grace Romero, lead horticulturalist for Burpee seeds. "A USDA collecting trip introduced the ornamental kales to the U.S. in 1929, and these first appeared in seed catalogs in 1936. The fantastic varieties sold today are still bred by Japanese seed companies."
Now is the time to plant these beauties. The first frost has killed off the pests that prey on members of the cole family and chew them to bits in just days. That same frost is what triggers the color changes in the center of the plant, and the colder it gets, the more dramatic the color.
Ornamental cabbage and ornamental kale are from the same family, Barssica oleracea, as edible cabbages and kales. If you need to tell them apart, the cabbages usually have the rounder leaves, while the kales have frilly or cut leaves.
Like their plain-Jane relatives, they are edible, but not quite so tasty and are more often used as garnish.
But in the garden, they can be stunning in a mass planting: checkerboard style, or in sweeping curves or along the border of a large garden.
Romero says she did not notice them in landscape use until the mid-1990s.
"As gardening and perennials became more popular and mainstream, fall landscaping became more of a must-do, especially in public places," she said. "There was a dearth of good quality bedding plants - pansies and fall mums were it. Landscapers wanted more durable plantings that can last longer, without much care, until the first snowfalls."
I like ornamental cabbage and kale better in more modest surroundings, as a counterpoint in a planter with sedum, pansies, the last of the geraniums or other cold weather annuals.
Ornamental cabbages, with their tight, rosette-like heads, can also look good massed in a planter, with a larger one in the center, surrounded by smaller ones -- almost like the setting for a ring.
When you are purchasing your plants, remember that what you see is what you get. Smaller heads will not grow much larger. The plants do get taller, however, and their naked stems begin to look leggy and less attractive.
These cold-weather ornamentals can handle temperatures as low as 5 degrees if it happens gradually. However, a sudden cold snap can be deadly.
But in a way that kind of turns nature on its head, each frost only intensifies the beauty of these humble plants.