Bursts of ruffled rosettes of burgundy, violet and green are synonymous with Colonial Williamsburg during autumn. Tufts of colorful kale line walkways and welcome visitors with a bit of whimsy and a dose of history. According to Colonial Williamsburg landscape foreman Hunter Curry, garden historians researched the Colonial era and found that kale was used for outdoor ornamentation then.
Kale thrives in the various climate zones of Virginia, including the Richmond region. Come autumn, the bloom may have fallen off the rose, but kale stays strong through late fall and can survive temperatures as low as 5 degrees Fahrenheit. However, finding kale for decorative purposes this fall might be tricky. "The heat that we've had is really giving local growers difficulty," says Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden assistant director Tom Brinda.
Kale — which belongs to the botanical designation Brassica oleracea that includes broccoli, collard greens, cabbage and cauliflower — can be planted toward the end of summer, but growers have better results if they plant it later, says Virginia Tech associate professor of horticulture Holly Scoggins. The most successful growth occurs when kale is planted in mid- to late-October, after mums have finished flowering, says John McFarlane, associate director of gardens and grounds at The College of William and Mary. Later plantings benefit from cooler temperatures, producing more brilliant colors. Also, kale planted after most pests have retired for the season fare better and more easily evade cabbage loopers that eat holes out of the leaves.
Despite the moniker "ornamental kale," all varieties of kale as well as cabbage are edible. Some, however, might not be as pleasing to the palate as others, says Virginia Tech associate horticulture professor Holly Scoggins.
Horticulturists at The College of William and Mary in Williamsburg grow kale in an on-site nursery and then transplant it to campus.
Extremely hot temperatures cause kale and cabbage to bolt — in other words, to flower, grow tall and emit an odor.