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Cinead McTernan The walking stick cabbage… and other odd but useful plants
A Jersey couple are not only the last growers of the giant cabbage – they’re also keeping a traditional craft alive, finds Cinead McTernan
Icame across the walking stick cabbage (Brassica oleracea) about 20 years ago, when I had my first allotment in London. Kings Seeds was the catalogue of choice for the lucky few who had managed to summit the seemingly unscalable allotment waiting list, only to find themselves faced with a weed-filled plot and heavy clay soil. (Or was that just me?)
A practical publication, what Kings’ catalogue lacked in jazziness and colour it more than made up for in its varied choice of vegetable seed. There must have been the stray picture because I’m sure that is where I saw this extremely tall and odd-looking plant (think kale that’s been put through an extruder). It’s also known as Brassica oleracea ‘Palmifolia’, giant Jersey kale and the Jersey cabbage.
I’m currently researching a book about growing edibles in the city and came across this strange specimen again, although this time on a website. Given its height (up to 6ft), it’s a good variety to grow in a small plot as it makes use of vertical space, but I’m unclear whether the plumes of cabbage-like leaves are edible or not. Who better to clear up any confusion than Philip and Jacquelyn Johnson, who have been growing this plant commercially for more than 30 years at their home in St Helier on Jersey.
“Cabbage loaf is still made by bakeries here on the island,” Philip explains. “Traditionally, bakers used the large leaves to protect the bread from burning in the old ovens, but it also gives it a unique flavour. It’s delicious.” However, they admit the same can’t be said of the boiled or cooked leaves: “No one likes the flavour”.
Grown on the island for the past few hundred years, the leaves were predominantly used to feed rabbits and goats, but it was the stem or stalk that was the main reason it was widely cultivated, Philip and Jacquelyn explain.
“We both have memories of family days out where we were taken to see the woodcrafters sanding and staining the dried stems to transform them into beautiful walking sticks. It was very much part of island life,” explains Jacquelyn.
When tourism began to dwindle in the 1980s, so too did the sales of walking sticks and eventually the crop disappeared from the fields. It turns out that Philip and Jacquelyn are the last commercial growers of the walking stick cabbage, but they didn’t set out with the intention of starting a business.
“Our son, Robin, who was five years old at the time, wanted to see one,” says Jacquelyn. “One plant led to several and before we knew it, we were growing around 70 each year.”
Philip adds: “It’s certainly not a getrich-quick business. It takes anywhere between 15 months to two years to grow the cabbages, then two to three years to dry them. Jacquelyn then has to sand and stain the sticks with six layers of varnish and I make a wood-turned handle. For us, it’s all about keeping the tradition alive.”
There’s clearly still plenty of interest in the plant and the walking sticks, and it has a global appeal. “It recently featured in a children’s book about growing unusual vegetables,” Philip explains. “We host the Swedish Kale and Cabbage Society on their annual visit and we’ve sent out seeds with a missionary who wanted to grow them in a Rwandan village.” It’s also grown as far afield as Japan and Australia.
Easy to grow, Philip recommends sowing seeds in August, and planting out seedlings by the end of September or the beginning of October. “The climate in Jersey is perfect for them to put on a bit of growth before winter so they’re established enough to get off to a flying start in March. We then harvest in the autumn,” says Philip.
“As with all cabbages, cabbage white butterflies can be a problem, so I squash the eggs when I find them, or remove the caterpillars. I’m not too worried about it though – as long as they stick to the old leaves, it’s fine.” It’s also a good idea to provide support and Philip uses dahlia stakes.
While I won’t be growing it as a culinary treat, I’ve already earmarked a spot in my garden for a couple of plants, happy in the knowledge that I’ll have sorted out two Christmas presents for the year after next.
‘It’s certainly not a getrich-quick business. It can take up to two years to grow the cabbages’
For further information about Jersey cabbage and seed, visit homestill.co. uk. Seed also available from thompson-morgan.com (called Kale ‘Walking Stick’) and victoriananursery.co.uk.