Shetland Kale

I want to draw your attention to a rare Scottish heritage vegetable called Shetland Kail /Kale. I have been eating lots of the young leaves recently and wanted to share my love of this not so commonly known vegetable, its history, why it’s so special and why it should be a staple in Scottish vegetable gardens.

What is Shetland Kale?
Shetland Kale is one of the most productive crops grown in Shetland and officially is classified as a cabbage. Traditionally in Shetland the hearts were eaten like a normal cabbage, while the leaves were given to the cattle and this still continues on some crofts today. I like to eat the young leaves as it is a waste letting them go tough when you do not have cattle to feed! When they are small and tender the leaves taste nice and peppery and go very well with other types of kale in meals. I like to make kale crisps in the dehydrator or oven.

What is its history?
Shetland Kale is the oldest known Scottish variety and has been grown in Shetland since the 17th century. Before the era of cheap oil, all Shetland crofts grew crops including oats, bere, neeps, potatoes and Shetland Kale. Due to the challenges of the weather in Shetland, seeds were sown in plantie crubs: circular stone walled enclosures where the plants were protected from wind, frost, rabbits and grazing animals. The seeds were grown successfully here, then were transplanted into kail yards, also made with stone walls to protect them from the near constant wind! There are still many ruined kail yards visible in the islands, not used any more but part of the landscape heritage of Shetland.

Why does it need saving?
Shetland Kale has been registered as a conservation variety due to its decline in usage over the past thirty years and until recently the seed’s survival was dependent on local crofters saving their seed and passing it on. Recently however, there has been a resurgence of people wanting to grow the heritage seed. Shetland Kale Seed Producers Network has recently released seed that I bought from Planticrub, the local garden centre in Shetland. You can find information on Shetland Kale and where to buy it through the Shetland Kale Growers Seed Network. You also might be lucky and find it in a local seed swap library or meet.

How to Grow
Since not many people have, or have need of a stone polycrub these days, sow the seeds like normal brassicas inside the house or greenhouse in March/April. Plant out with the other kale, cabbages and broccoli in late April, early May and harden off in the usual manner. You can also grow them with successive sowings through the Spring and Summer to keep a constant supply. Shetland Kale takes up a lot of space so space the plants well or they will take over!

I like to harvest a few leaves at a time off each plant when they are young and tender and leave the heart to develop into a cabbage to eat in the Winter. It makes a unique kimchi! Shetland Kale is hardy so will survive the Scottish Winter fine outside. Shetlanders normally leave a few plants to go to seed the second year to see the beautiful yellow flowers come out and to harvest the seed. To save the seed from your own Shetland Kale and help save this heritage seed, harvest the pods when they have turned brown and slightly brittle, place on a cloth to prevent seed loss and thresh the pods by rubbing between the hands. Then store in a cool area.

Cairi Balmain grows lots of vegetables in her garden in the Shetland Islands where the weather is extremely challenging. She also makes traditional, cold process, botanical soaps and botanical balms from home grown herbs and flowers. You can follow Cairi’s vegetable growing and botanical soap making adventures on her Instagram account.

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