By this point in the summer we are fed up with the unrelenting heat and lack of rain. We have been sorely missing many of our brassicas, like cabbage and broccoli, for a few months now! One mustard family crop that can survive the heat and give us a yield year-after-year is the perennial tree collard. It is very similar to the annual collard, which looks and tastes like the outside leaves of a cabbage (but it doesn’t head like cabbage). Collards are very popular in the South, where they are often simmered with pork to a luxurious, rich, and tender finish. If you are looking for something a little lighter, check out our healthy tree collard salad recipe!
We aren’t exactly sure where tree collards originated from. Some people think they were first used as animal fodder and then became a food crop. Others believe they were cultivated as a food crop and were brought over from Africa to America by slaves. Now they are prized as a ‘permaculture crop,’ one of the uncommon perennial vegetables. Our post about permaculture explains why these types of plants are so valuable.
The tree collard is tastiest when it experiences cooler temperatures and rain; but it will none the less produce new growth through the summer. Still the leaves will be sweeter and more tender in winter. Tree collards thrive on the coast and require more care in hotter micro-climates and inland locations. In hotter locales, plant them in part-shade, and give them plenty of water. They can be grown as a perennial in Zones 7-10. Treated well, they will grow more than 6 feet tall and live for 3 to 5 years.
Once your plant grows 4 to 6 feet, you can cut the top foot or more off main stem, which will cause more side branches–rather than the central trunk–to grow. If the plant is cut short, the leaves will be smaller. Left to grow tall, the plant will produce larger leaves, but will be more top-heavy. During the winter, tall plants can be blown over by the wind, so they are often staked with a 10-foot pole (with 3 feet underground).
Tree collards do not usually produce seeds, and when they do, they are not true-to-seed. So, to propagate them, cuttings are taken from green side branches or the top portion of the stem. After 2 to 3 years the stalks will become woody. Since woody cuttings will result in stunted plants, cuttings should be taken before this (at around 18 months), and in the late summer, or during winter. A cutting with as many nodes as possible should be taken (include at least 5). Remove all of the leaves from the cutting except for the smallest one or two at the top. Bury the cutting in a pot just above the top leafless node.
Several cuttings should be taken, since not every one will succeed. Once new leaves begin to form, you might have a successful propagation. Leave it in the pot for several months to grow and be very careful when digging out the new plant, as the young roots will be extremely delicate.
Want to get started with your tree collard? You can mail order tree collard cuttings from Bountiful Gardens!