Perennial Kale (Brassica oleracea var. ramosa)

Perennial Kale is easily my favorite permaculture homestead plant. I am grateful that my path crossed with Chris Homanics, the breeder of Homesteader’s Perennial Kale some years ago. After giving it a chance, my relationship with kale has never been the same!

In fact I no longer grow any other variety of kale. Every member of my family agrees! We’ve all grown the Lacintos, Russians, and curly kale. While Homesteader’s Perennial Kale may not have those same textures, it beats all the other kale in terms of vigor, resistance to pests, and growth year after year in our gardens!

As far as flavor goes, it is delicious! We grow several plants for each person in our family and we have an abundance of greens on our plates year round. Perennial kale has become one of the cornerstones of our family’s nutrition.

Try it out! You may never look at kale the same again.

Homesteader's Perennial Kale
Homesteader’s Perennial Kale, from seed bred by Chris Homanics of Head Hands Heart

Brassica oleracea – A Brief Introduction

Kale belongs to the Brassicaceae family, which includes a large number of familiar plants that are grown for leaves (kale, cabbage, collards, mustard, brussels sprouts arugula, bok choy, garden cress, watercress), flowers (broccoli, cauliflower), swollen stems (kohlrabi) and roots (turnips, radishes, horseradish).

Thousands of years ago, clever women genetically modified one wild plant to produce the many cabbage family plants we grow today including broccoli, cauliflower, kale, collards, Brussel sprouts and the many kinds of cabbage. Yes! These are all really just one plant! Other cultivated cabbage family plants include mustard (greens and seeds), radishes, arugula, bok choy, turnips, rutabaga, kohlrabi, broccoli de rappi, and horseradish. . . . Don’t like calling it the cabbage family? You can call it the mustard family. Gardeners call them cole crops or brassicasias (bra-suh-case-ee-ahs) and to the botanist they constitute the Brassicaceae (formerly Cruciferae) family.

Susun Weed, The Cabbage family

Brassicas in many forms are both cultivated and growing wild throughout the world.

Kale belongs to the genus and species Brassica oleracea, which it shares with most other kale, broccoli, brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, collards, kale and kohlrabi. If you’ve grown all or many of these different plants, you’ll likely notice similarities in their growth habits, seeds, flavor, etc. The reason is that while they are all distinctly unique, they are also genetically similar, coming from common ancestors.

The B. oleracea species is outbreeding, meaning they can all easily cross pollinate with each other. This trait is half the reason why we have so many different distinct Brassica oleracea plants. The other half is because so much breeding work has been done over many, many, many generations to co-create the plants that we enjoy so much today.

Perennial Kale (aka Perpetual Kale, Branching Bush Kale)

Perennial Kale are two words that are not often used together. Kale is most often grown as an annual or biennial. Our good friend Chris Homanics of Head Hands Heart is working hard to change that through his breeding work by bringing back perennial traits from obscure kale varieties bred into a unique and dependable selection.

Brassica oleracea var. ramosa is the variety of kale that includes trait that gives it an ability to grow perennially.

A little backstory on the genetics of Brassica oleracea ramosa: This subspecies name, ramosa, means “bushing” in Portuguese. . . . They are often believed to be representatives of early cultivated forms selected from wild Brassica oleracea still found throughout Europe. Genetically they are truly distinct from all other studied Brassica oleracea. Several recessive traits appear to be involved in what makes a plant perennial.

Perennial Kale Breeding Project, Experimental Farm Network

Actually, you may have already noticed, that some readily available kale do have a perennial trait and can grow for a few years in the garden. However, perennial it is not a trait that kale is conventionally intentionally grown for.

Unlike most other kale breeders, Chris is intentionally growing his kale to include the perennial trait. On average a perennial kale plant will grow for 3-5 years. That’s a lot longer than most people grow kale plants for! This means you can enjoy leaves from the same kale plant year after year.

Three Homesteader Perennial Kale plants.
Believe it or not, this photo shows only three Homesteader Perennial Kale plants! They have so many side branches that they look like dozens of kale plants growing close together. Each branch is a potential meal waiting to happen.

Most kale in general are very vigorous growers and in ideal conditions you can enjoy many leaves in the first year. But I find that perennial kale plants get stronger with each subsequent year.

In February when you might normally be starting kale from seed and expecting them to take several months to get established, a 2nd, 3rd or 4th year perennial kale plant will be coming out of winter and putting on a massive amount of growth.

Homesteaders perennial kale plant with numerous side branches.
A third year Homesteader’s Perennial Kale plant. You can expect this kind of branching from this bush kale. We typically prune out many of the side branches for food and allow the remaining branches to grow larger leaves. The younger branches are entirely tender.

The abundance of greens that we’ve enjoyed growing perennial kale is astonishing. One plant in its second year might provide the same amount of greens as several typical first year kale plants.

I believe perennial kale can be grown perennially (over winter) without protection to at least zone 5 or 6. I also know that Chris is working hard on improving the perennial kale’s cold tolerance.

In colder climates, there might be the potential to grow perennial kale as a die back perennial. I notice that when I chop a perennial kale plant to the ground, more often than not it will grow back with vigor, so that suggests the possibility.

In our zone 7 climate leaves can be harvested nearly year round. In the coldest parts of winter some of the kale leaves are somewhat affected by the freezing temperatures. Some plants are less affected by freezing than others. During those few months we rely more on frozen and dried greens. By late winter the perennial kale plants are rearing to go and sending forth more nutritious leaves.

First year Homesteaders Perennial Kale plants in the winter.
First year Homesteader’s Perennial Kale plants. This photo was taken in the winter after all the deciduous trees had dropped their leaves. Many of the leaves are still vibrant and nutritious.

The kale leaves are sweetest with new growth in spring and late fall (winter in warmer climates). In the summer the leaves become more bitter, but still quite palatable for our family’s taste.

[Branching Bush Kale] is the true queen of perennial brassicas. Bush kale is probably one of the earliest domesticated forms of B. oleracea. Pliny described what is thought to be this plant as ‘Tritian Kale’ in AD 70, and at that point it had lost its ability to flower, which indicates that it had already had a long history of cultivation.

Eric Toensmeier, Perennial Vegetables

Purchasing Perennial Kale Seed

Homesteader’s Kaleidoscopic Perennial Kale Grex is an ongoing breeding project by Chris Homanics of Head Hands Heart and is sure to improve year after year. The perennial kale seed can be acquired at Experimental Farm Network’s online store. I highly recommend supporting them with your seed purchase because they are doing amazing work (check out their other seeds available too!). But if they are sold out you can also find seed at One Green World.

On another note, you may also be interested to check out the Perennial Kale Breeding Project over at Experimental Farm Network. This project page is devoted to connecting gardeners, farmers and homesteaders that are passionate about contributing to a distributed breeding project to improve the Perennial Kale. By connecting growers across the country, kale will experience and adapt to a multitude of environmental conditions. Some of the resulting seed can be bred back into the core stock of Perennial Kale to help it become more resilient, stronger and adaptable.

Homesteaders Perennial Kale plants next to a young child.
A first year Homesteader’s Perennial Kale plant already has large leaves, but won’t start vigorously branching until its second year.

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Inside you’ll find:

  • Genetic Diversity in Perennial Kale
  • Permaculture Design Considerations
  • Kale’s Nutrition
  • Cooking with Perennial Kale
  • Recipes
  • Anti-Cancer and Radiation Protection
  • Propagation Tips
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