Walking Stick kale is a fascinating heirloom with a rich history. Also known as Tall Jacks, Jersey Cabbage or Cow Cabbage, this extra-tall kale has been grown in Europe for centuries, mostly on the island of Jersey, the largest of the Channel Islands.
The plant’s many uses, coupled with its strikingly tall stature, make it a stand-out variety from antiquity that we are delighted to see reintroduced to home growers.
You can thank countless generations of Jersey farmers and gardeners for Walking Stick kale. Since at least the early 1800s — but likely much earlier —- they’ve been carefully selecting this cabbage to have an extra-long stem. It’s not just for eating: this kale, with its slender, strong stem, has been reimagined into such items as walking sticks, fencing and even roof rafters for small buildings such as outhouses.
Walking stick kale is now considered obscure even in the Channel Islands, but it was once said to be grown in every garden on Jersey. In the 1835 edition of The Gardeners Dictionary, Philip Miller describes the Jersey walking stick kale in great detail, and we can get a sense of how growing and selling this cabbage relative once comprised a thriving cottage industry on Jersey Island.
Islanders often grew the tall plants along the outer border of their gardens. They stripped the lower leaves on the stalk, giving the plants the look of a palm tree. This technique wasn’t just about aesthetics: it was meant to keep the stalks straight, so they could be used as building material.
The resourceful islanders saved the lower leaves, feeding the toughest ones to sheep or cows and reserving the most tender ones for cooking. It is noted that the very top rosette of leaves left at the end of the growing season made a tender potherb for boiling and eating. Leaves were also used as a protective wrapping for cheese and butter.
The Gardeners Dictionary claims that Jersey Cabbage can grow to 16 feet tall. While this impressive height may be possible in some places, most find the plants average about 6-10 feet.
The dictionary goes on to explain that a planting of just 60 Walking Stick kale plants could feed one cow for an entire year. In 1836, Farmer’s Magazine reported that sheep who ate Jersey kale leaves could grow silkier wool coats up to 25 inches long.
The Jersey kale walking stick was once a popular item for tourists visiting the quaint island in the English Channel. By the end of the 20th century, it’s believed that the islands were producing about 30,000 walking sticks each year.
Making a kale stalk into a walking stick requires some patience. Before they can be sanded and varnished, the stalks are hung up to dry, sometimes for up to two years. Sadly, the business of growing kale for walking sticks has almost completely died out. Try your hand at growing this famous old cabbage — and perhaps make a walking stick or fence yourself!
Find Walking Stick kale seeds here.