For gardeners with a sense of history

OE wyrtig, adj: Garden-like, full of plants;
On anum wyrtige hamme, Homl. Skt. ii. 30:312




Early gardens

Early plants

Growing heirloom plants

Garden folklore

Resources for gardeners

Site map

Contact us

The Brassicas:
Cabbage, Kale, Kohlrabi, Turnip

Brassicas in early sources

Description     Propagation     Cultivation       Harvest


Cabbage Kohlrabi Turnip

Scientific name

Brassica oleracea
cabbage; oleracea, of the vegetable garden

  • B.  o. variety acephala, kale, non-heading garden cabbage, kale

  • B. o.  variety capitata, garden cabbage

  • B. o.  variety caulorapa, kohlrabi, stemmed garden cabbage

  • B. rapa rapifera, turnip

Common names,
Cabbage, colewort, kraut
Kale, kail, borekole (Dutch boeran, farmer's)
Kohlrabi (kohl, cabbage; rabi, turnip)
Turnip (turned, as on a lathe; neap, root)
Common names, early

Kale, cabbage:

Bradan cawel, brassica, caula, caules, - Leechbook (caules, cawel, from L. caulis, stem or stalk; bradan, broad or wide)

Cawlic - Lacnunga

Caul, cal - Aelfric

Caulos - Capitulare de Villis, Plan of St Gall

Cambric .I. Brassica; Crambe - Laud Glossary


- Capitulare de Villis
Magudarius - Durham Glossary, Aelfric
(magudaris was originally the stalk or root of another plant, laserpiticum or lapsana, but came to denote the core or stalk of a Brassica, most likely kohlrabi)



Aenglisene naep, naep - Lacnunga  (naep, turnip; Aenglisene, English)

Naep - Aelfric

Reading the early manuscripts, it is often difficult or impossible to know which Brassica is intended -- wild or cultivated; cabbage, kale, kohlrabi, turnip.

But we do know that Brassicas have been an essential food crop for millennia. Tolerant of cold and damp, they have a long growing season. Cabbage, turnip and kohlrabi stored well, providing food through the cold of winter.

Brassica seed was also important as both seasoning and medicinal; today, one familiar form is mustard. Vitamin rich and very filling, Brassicas were a staple in the diets of rich and poor alike.

The earliest forms of these leafy plants were being cultivated by 4,000 years ago. As gardeners selected and planted seeds from plants they particularly liked, the varieties of Brassica we know today began to appear. First, thick rooted Brassicas, or turnips. Then the large, loose-leaved Brassicas, the kales. Next, those with "heads" -- tight clusters of leaves (cabbages); and finally those with swollen, above-ground stems (kohlrabi).

Early Brassicas

2000 BCE 1000 BCE 100 CE 600 CE
Central Europe
Planting seed saved from plants with succulent roots
resulted in


Mediterranean region

Planting seed saved from plants with
large leaves

resulted in


Central Europe

Planting seed saved from plants with
thick stems

resulted in


Mediterranean region

Planting seed saved from plants with tightly clustered leaves resulted in

Brassicas provide more cultivated crops than any other genus. In addition to the four ancient cultivars described above, modern gardens are home to such "new" varieties as broccoli, Brussels sprouts, parsnips, and rutabagas. In today's gardens, Brassicas also appear as ornamentals, their substantial leaves adding color and gravitas to pleasure and utilitarian gardens alike.


Lifespan Cabbage, kohlrabi, and turnips are all annuals; kale is biennial or perennial.
Cold hardiness Brassicas are hardy to 15-20o F.
Size Cabbage and kale are typically large plants, about 2’ high x 3’ wide. Turnip and kohlrabi are about 18” high, 12-15” wide.

Cabbage and kale are grown for their leaves; they may have tight (cabbage) or loose (kale) heads, but both are substantial plants.

Turnips are root crops; kohlrabi are grown for their thick, above ground stems. These each have fewer, less tightly packed leaves.


When Brassicas flower, it is called bolting. Generally, they are harvested before reaching this state; the exception is when they are grown for their seed, as with mustard.


Brassicas all have large, thick leaves; shapes vary.

By seed

Brassicas are easy to start from seed, and may be sown very early in the spring. Check the time from germination to harvest on the seed packet; if too long for your growing season, start inside. Otherwise, they do well when planted directly into the bed where they are to be grown.

Germination temperature 68-70 degrees F.
Germination time 5-10 days
Moisture Water regularly until plants are well established.


Soil Cabbage, kale, and kohlrabi like a firm soil; turnips, because they are root crops, need a looser seedbed.
Moisture Water regularly
Light Full sun
Natural habitat Brassicas grow in the wild from the Mediterranean to central Europe.
Vigor Hardy, vigorous, beautiful plants

Club root, caused by a fungus, can stunt or kill Brassicas of all sorts. Infected plants will have yellow leaves be stunted. To prevent infection, start your own plants -- the fungus often arrives on the roots of seedlings from infected gardens. Remember to rotate your Brassicas each year, and add lime to the soil in which you grow Brassicas to reduce soil acidity.


The white cabbage moth (actually a butterfly) is an early visitor to most gardens, and its caterpillars can wreak havoc with Brassicas. The upside is that the worms are easy to pick off the leaves and discard. While you're checking the leaves for caterpillars, keep an eye out for clusters of yellow eggs, and destroy them as well. Hyssop is reputed to repel cabbage moths, and is an easy perennial to grow.

Mealy aphids can also be a serious pest with Brassicas. Interplanting with marigolds helps prevent aphid infestation.

Flea beetles can be a pest with brassicas; destroy eggs and larvae by regularly cultivating the soil at the base of the plants, and remove flea beetles on the plants by spraying them with water. Catnip and sage are said to repel flea beetles, and  both are easy to grow.

Root fly infestation can be foiled by putting a collar around the base of each plant. You can make the collar from several layers of newspaper, from landscape cloth, from plastic, or from old carpet -- and this will also keep weeds from growing beneath the plants.

In general, interplanting with strong smelling plants -- marigolds, nasturtiums, catnip, etc. -- may confuse pests who use scent to locate your Brassicas .

Season to bloom/bear

Brassicas are harvested in late fall, and their flavor is improved by exposure to light frost.


Home | Early gardens | Early plants | Growing heirloom plants | Garden folklore | Resources | Site map


Botanists are among those who know that, in spite of the rude shocks of life,
it is well to have lived, and to have seen the everlasting beauty of the world.
F.D. Drewitt


Copyright 2015 S.E.S. Eberly
All Rights Reserved

Contact us