Annuals Vegetables

Are Flowering Cabbages Edible?

Red and white ornamental cabbage.

By Larry Hodgson

Question: This spring I sowed some flowering cabbages and it was a huge success: they’re absolutely beautiful and so easy to grow. But as I look at them, I keep wondering if they might not be edible as well. What do you think?

Kelsey Strawn

Answer: Of course they’re edible. They are, after all, cabbages (Brassica oleracea) or, to be more precise, kales (cabbages that don’t form a head). They have the same excellent nutritional qualities as any other cabbage and definitely taste like cabbage/kale, though their flavor is perhaps a bit more intense than certain strictly edible varieties. Like most cabbages, their taste is sweetened by exposure to frost.

I keep hearing suggestions that they’re extra tough and therefore unpalatable, but I don’t find that to be true. In Asia, where they’re highly prized, they’re widely used in cooking and you don’t hear any such complaints. Back when there were salad bars (pre-COVID, that is), some restaurants used them to add edible color to their fall displays. And caterers still often use the colorful leaves for dips. 

Flowering Cabbage or Ornamental Cabbage?

Ornamental cabbage ‘Red Peacock’ with deeply cut pink leaves.
Ornamental cabbage ‘Red Peacock’. Photo: Tony Alter, Wikimedia Commons

I prefer to call them ornamental cabbages rather than flowering cabbages, as the beautiful color in the center of the plant is not a flower, but simply colored leaves. After a summer growing and taking on a rather classic frilly kale appearance, with an open rosette of blue-green to reddish-green leaves, the center leaves turn white, pink, red, lilac, etc. in response to the cool temperatures of fall. In mild climates, they keep their color all winter and are used as winter annuals. In colder ones, they remain attractive right through the fall (they’re not damaged by even repeated freezes), but snow usually hides them eventually.

Ornamental cabbage in bloom
Ornamental cabbage in bloom in spring. Photo:

The actual bloom of a “flowering cabbage,” if there is any, will take place next spring … if you leave them in the garden over the winter, that is. They’re biennials and flower in their second year. Tall stalks of pale yellow flowers appear: quite remarkable in their own right.

However, in many areas, you may need to protect overwintering ornamental cabbages from the cold: most aren’t frost resistant below hardiness zone 6.

Larry Hodgson is one of Canada’s best-known garden communicators. He has notably been editor-in-chief of HousePlant Magazine, Fleurs, Plantes et Jardins, À Fleur de Pot and Houseplant Forum magazines and is currently the garden correspondent for Le Soleil and radio garden commentator for CKIA-FM Radio. He has written for many garden publications in both the United States and Canada, including Canadian Gardening, Harrowsmith, Horticulture, Fine Gardening and Organic Gardening. He also speaks frequently to horticultural groups throughout Canada and the U.S. His book credits include The Garden Lover’s Guide to Canada, Complete Guide to Houseplants, Making the Most of Shade, Perennials for Every Purpose, Annuals for Every Purpose, and Houseplants for Dummies, as well as nearly 60 other titles in English and French. He is a past president of the Garden Writers Association (now Garden Communicators International) and the winner of the prestigious 2006 Garden Media Promoter Award offered by the Perennial Plant Association. He resides in Quebec City, Quebec, Canada.

7 comments on “Are Flowering Cabbages Edible?

  1. Wow, I had never heard of or seen a flowering cabbage. They are beautiful!

  2. I grew a few years ago and the local deer enjoyed them, along with salad fixings in my yard.

  3. Am enjoying looking at them through my front windows right now. Centers are starting to dome and elongate. The critters enjoy them too so up on my front porch they are safe.

  4. The flowering tops (buds, open flowers, and tender stems) of kale are the best tasting part of kale plants IMHO. Surprisingly sweet and fragrant, sometimes with a bit of hot mustard bite. Pretty nice little surprise after using them as a winter ornamental!

  5. Oh yes, of course; but I notice them more as ‘framing’ for salad, rather than as a component to the salad that is expected to get eaten. I mean, the colorful leaves are used like other cut foliage, and neatly arranged around the perimeter of a salad bar. If cooked into a stew, they can make the broth a weird color, but they taste fine.

Leave a Reply

Sign up for the Laidback Gardener blog and receive articles in your inbox every morning!

%d bloggers like this: