Grit

A SOUTHERN FOOD TRADITION: SAVING HEIRLOOM COLLARDS

Although collards (Brassica oleracea) originated in Europe, they’ve become known as a specialty of the southern United States, where the cooking influences and preferences of enslaved or Indigenous communities made these leafy greens a regional specialty. Collards, or “greens,” have long served an important nutritional role for people in the Southeast and may have even saved lives over the years. They’re extremely nutritious (outpaced only by spinach in nutritional value) and will produce greens for up to 10 months of the year. They’re a biennial that’s both more cold-tolerant and more heat-tolerant than most other greens. But collards aren’t limited to the southern U.S., growing as well as or better than cabbage, kale, spinach, and turnip greens in most climates.

A Road Trip to Remember

Recognizing that heirloom collards were becoming harder to find, four men covered thousands of miles, between 2003 and 2007, searching for heirloom collard plants by word-of-mouth and by reading newspapers, attending small-town collard festivals, and visiting restaurants where collards were the only greens served.

After the journey, road trip member and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Plant Geneticist Mark Farnham grew more than 60 heirloom collard to tell the stories of these cultivars and the gardeners who steward them. Davis and Morgan noted diversity among the collard seed savers, except for their ages. Many of these stewards were older, the average age being 70, and most of them didn’t have family, friends, or neighbors willing or able to keep growing their particular family collard into the future.

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