All About Kale

Love it or hate it, this intensely flavored brassica isn’t just a flash in the pan — it’s been in demand for hundreds of years.

  • The number of U.S. farms growing kale jumped from under 1,000 to more than 2,500 between 2007 and 2012.
    Photo by
  • Chou cavalier kale grows on stems up to 6 feet high.
    Photo by Vilmorin-Andrieux
  • Italian lacinato, also known as cavalo nero or "dinosaur" kale, grows tall in a field.
    Photo by Adobe Stock/Ruud Morijn
  • Cold-hardy kale at the end of the growing season; frost makes the greens taste sweeter.
    Photo by Stocksy/Raymond Forbes LLC
  • Russian kales often boast red leaves with purple stems.
    Photo by Adobe Stock/Maksim Shebeko
  • An abandoned plantie crub once sheltered kale seedlings in Scotland's Shetland Islands.
    Photo by Bateson
  • North Americans are most familiar with Scottish kale and its tightly crinkled blue-green leaves.
    Photo by
  • Round-leaved Tronchuda kale originated in Portugal.
    Photo by
  • A single cup of boiled kale packs lots of protein, calcium, and vitamin A -- but kale tastes sweeter when it's been seared under high heat.
    Photo by Adobe Stock/Printemps
  • Homemade kale chips are baked with olive oil, sea salt, and often other seasonings.
    Photo by Adobe Stock/Julia Metkalova

“I wish people would stop calling kale a fad,” says Jennifer Iserloh. “Fads are things that don’t have legs to them, but kale has a long history.”

Iserloh is the co-author and chef behind Fifty Shades of Kale, a cheeky collection of simple yet modern recipes designed to smuggle the health benefits of kale into the bellies of people she calls “veggie haters.” She smothers kale in apricot jam and olive oil, blends it into creamy pastel-green “kale-onaise,” and tucks it unnoticed into chocolate popsicles, beef chili, and cheesy pastas. “Kale has a place in everyone’s diet,” she says.

Fifty Shades of Kale was published during what The New Yorker hailed as the “Age of Kale.” Between 2012 and 2014, National Kale Day became a thing. First lady Michelle Obama taught Americans how to make kale chips, actress Gwyneth Paltrow touted kale as “one of the best things you can put into your system,” and, according to the MyFitnessPal app, on an early January day in 2014, Americans consumed the most kale per capita in all recorded history. Quickly, kale went from unfamiliar and unappetizing to becoming the subject of memes and a popular pun for T-shirt designers.

Even vegetable growers, researchers, and breeders were unprepared for the rise in demand. “The kale movement caught a lot of people by surprise, so nobody was really working on [developing kale cultivars],” says Phillip Griffiths, a vegetable breeder at the Cornell University Agricultural Experiment Station. “Even the people who are the suppliers of kale seeds didn’t see it coming.” Between 2007 and 2012, the number of U.S. farms growing kale jumped from under 1,000 to more than 2,500. Farmers harvested more than 2,200 additional acres of kale during this period — and about 1,600 of those acres were in California alone. So many farmers scrambled onto the kale wagon that seed supplies actually ran out.

The media predicted kale would share the same fate as eating half a grapefruit for breakfast. But Iserloh is right: Kale’s been around a lot longer than the online dieting community remembers. In fact, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, farmers produced only marginally more kale in 2007 than in 1889. In 1909, Americans consumed 10 percent of their calcium in the form of dark leafy greens. No one was using MyFitnessPal back then, but it’s likely 2014 wasn’t actually the all-time record of kale consumption.

Most researchers believe kale is the earliest domesticated form of Brassica oleracea, the species that has also been transformed into broccoli, kohlrabi, cabbage, and Brussels sprouts by humans selecting for larger flower size, or fatter stems, or leaves that clump together to form heads. Kale looks the most similar to the wild cabbage ancestor, and was eaten in ancient Greece. By A.D. 100, the Romans had recorded 12 distinct kale-like plants.

1/25/2018 10:45:47 AM

I have tried to raise Dinosaur Kale for 2 years for my grandchildren. The 1st year in a raised bed where it never sprouted. The 2nd containered on the porch under lights where it sprouted, got 8 inches tall, then just stopped. It didn't die, but just quit growing in a compost blend potting soil. I purchased new seed, different sources for each planting. Could you possibly give me an idea of what I might be doing wrong? We are in Kentucky US, zone 6.



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