tuning in to heirloom collards, with chris smith

HEIRLOOM TOMATOES and pumpkins you’ve heard of, but why shouldn’t heirloom collards get just as much love—and space in our gardens? Tell the truth: Have you ever even grown collards, whether an old-time variety or otherwise? You should, and to that end, National Collards Week (including free online programming) begins December 14th, spearheaded by Seed Savers Exchange, Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, the Utopian Seed Project and others, and that seemed reason enough to me to dig in and learn about this delicious green.

To talk collards I called Chris Smith, a serious seed saver and permaculturist and writer. Though he was born in the U.K., Chris has a particular passion for traditional Southern crops. He’s executive director of the Utopian Seed Project, a crop trialing nonprofit working to celebrate food and farming, and his book, “The Whole Okra,” which we talked about on the show when it came out, won a James Beard Foundation Award in 2020.

Read along as you listen to the December 7, 2020 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on Apple Podcasts (iTunes) or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).


a diversity of collard greens, with chris smith

 

Margaret: You and your Southern crops, Chris. [Laughter.]

Chris: You know, it’s hard to get away from it when you’re living in the South.

Margaret: Yes. I’ll give people the transcript to the past show about the okra book because, oh boy. But collards. Tell us. This is part of … There’s the Heirloom Collard Project, HeirloomCollards.org, and now there’s Collards Week, and so give us the backdrop; there’s a lot of moving parts. Tell us what’s going on.

Chris: Yeah, there are a lot of moving parts. The Heirloom Collard Project has actually been around for quite a few years, but it started up with Seed Savers Exchange and mainly Ira Wallace of Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. And then it dropped off a little bit and lost momentum and then just at the beginning of this year, Ira and I at an agricultural conference were talking. We’re like, “We need to do a collard trial again this year.” And then Seed Savers Exchange got back involved, because they’ve been curating a lot of these varieties, and it just picked up momentum where Working Food Group from Florida also got involved, and it just picked up a lot of partners and excitement.

And the Heirloom Collard Project, as an organization to celebrate and have these awesome varieties stewarded more widely and grown more widely, got going with a trial that we’ve been running and we can talk about a little bit.

But then Collard Week is spearheaded by the Culinary Breeding Network out in Oregon, and they saw what we were doing with collards and were planning on doing a series of virtual events that would celebrate certain crops. They got in touch and said, “We want to do a Collard Week, and we want you to be involved.” And we’ve ended up working together to get an awesome lineup of speakers to talk about and celebrate and educate around collards for Collard Week.

Margaret: So all of these programs will be virtual and we can give links of where people can tune in and so forth. Are they all like Zoom things, or how does that work? [Register here for virtual events.]

Chris: Yeah, definitely. We are living in the times of virtual programming, which has some benefits. It means wherever you are, you can join in with Collard Week, so that’s really exciting. Obviously we’re going to miss some of that personal connection, but basically they will all be streamed through YouTube Live via the Culinary Breeding Network. So it’s taking place on Zoom so there’ll be a Zoom-type feel, but you’ll be able to access it through YouTube. And the nice thing with the programming is it’s all free, so there’s really no barriers to you being a part of Collard Week, and you can jump in and check out any of the presenters talking about the history of collards, or the ways to cook with collards, seed-saving with collards. There’s all sorts of things going on.

Ira Wallace, crowder peas and red okraMargaret: You mentioned Ira Wallace [above, with okra and crowder peas]… and Ira, one of the highlights of my garden in recent years, is that she came with a friend up here and actually visited me and I got to spend an afternoon with them, which was really sensational. Because from the very beginning of Southern Exposure Seed Exchange back in the day, even though I’m a Northerner, I used to always order things from there, and I was so fascinated, as you have become a transplant to the South. Even though I didn’t get transplanted. I was always interested in, well, “What’s a greasy bean? And, what’s a collard?” You know what I mean? Things that weren’t on the plate where I grew up and weren’t in the garden where my mother or grandmother or whatever in the backyard here, and have tried many of the things. So it’s really fun to see excitement about this.

So maybe we should just back up just for a couple of minutes and talk taxonomy in a way. You know, what’s a collard? They’re in the same genus and species as cabbage, kale, Brussels sprouts, kohlrabi, cauliflower.

I mean, I think it’s Brassica oleracea, and yet there’s so many groups within that. It’s just, taxonomically, this is one that stumps me all the time, and I can’t keep it straight, because there’s these groups, cultivar groups within that species, and the collards are in one of the groups along with kale I think. I think they’re the most closely related to kale. Anyway, so what are they? They have a lot of cousins in the cabbage family, right? [Laughter.]

Chris: Yeah. Whenever I teach on seed saving, this is the species that I use as an example of kind of like the marvels of domesticated crops, because the Brassica oleracea has as a species birthed all these different offshoots that you’ve just listed some of them. But to walk into the supermarket and see your cabbage head, and then your kale, and then your Brussels sprouts, you wouldn’t necessarily put them all into the same species, but through the act of selective seed-saving and really developing specific traits within that species, we see this crazy diversity of food crops. Broccoli and cauliflower, they’re all included in there.

So that’s fun to explore collards specifically within that, definitely very close to kale. It’s interesting. One thing I noticed when I was working at Sow True Seed, a small seed company down here, was we started carrying Portuguese kale, but it turns out that Portuguese kale looks just like a collard leaf and I was like, “Hang on. What’s going on here?” And it turns out in Portugal, they don’t really have a word to differentiate the two-

Margaret: [Laughter.]

Chris: …so they really are very closely related on that level, and collards are just, you know, they do reasonably well with the heat, even though they taste better after a frost, and they tend to have a little more of a broader leaf.

But as you’ll see if you check out some of these collards that we’re working with, even within what we call collards, there’s this huge diversity. And we have some cabbage collards that form a little bit more of a head like a cabbage, even though the cabbage has gone all the way to form a tight head. You have these heading collards, which are again, maybe you could think of that like heading lettuce versus loose-leaf lettuce. So there’s a lot of differences within collards as well. A lot of diversity to explore, which is pretty exciting.

Margaret: Yeah. I’ve only ever grown, and I’m going to sound like such a dodo because ‘Vates’ is the only one… And I mean, I think there’s offshoots of ‘Vates,’ like ‘Vates’ relatives or whatever [laughter], and that’s the only name I even know. I could probably name 100 tomato varieties and fifty squash, but that’s the only one I even know, and I remember thicker—the leaves felt thicker to me, and it took a little longer to cook; they were thicker. It was bigger, more broadleaf so to speak I think, as you just said. But when I look at the pictures of these heirloom varieties that are in your trial, and you can tell us a little bit about the trial in a minute, but they’re diverse and some are shiny. Not shiny, but a little more glossy than others, and some are a little more matte.

Chris: Yeah, yeah.

Margaret: Some look like they have almost a waxy covering on them, or is that the case? Tell us a little more.

Chris: There’s, and I feel like I’m going down the same rabbit hole as I ended up with okra. It’s just-

Margaret: Uh-oh. [Laughter.]

Chris: I know. Yeah, we’ve got such an under appreciation of what these crops and what the food system could offer us, and we get trapped in these singular varieties or what we’re offered in the supermarket, and it’s exciting to blow that box open and see all the differences. You mentioned ‘Vates.’ There’s another very well loved collard, which is called-

Margaret: Georgia?

Chris: ‘Georgia’ is well loved collard and is pretty well known. I was going to say ‘Green Glaze,’ because-

Margaret: Yes. Yes, yes.

Chris: That one’s known for having that sheen to it, but a lot of them are more matted and there’s a lot of coloration differences, and actually you mentioned Ira. We’re so honored to have Ira and all her wisdom as part of this project. I really enjoy learning from her, and just yesterday I was speaking to her and she mentioned that if you want to get people into eating collards that aren’t necessarily into collards, because you know, there’s some flavor differences too. She was saying that the paler colors—we have some varieties that are described as yellow collards or white collards—and the paler ones have a more mild flavor as well, and the darker collards tend to be a bit more intense, maybe have some of those bitter tones in them as well. Certainly if you’re eating them as a summer collard, where they tend to be a bit more bitter and then they sweeten up after the frost.

So there’s all these different correlations within the collard varieties to be explored and I feel on some level, we’re just beginning to get into those bits of information, but yeah, it’s pretty exciting to see them all laid out. [Above North Carolina Yellow collard, part of the trial group of heirlooms.]

Margaret: Unlike okra, one of your other obsessions, if I may say that in a complimentary manner [laughter]

Chris: I’ll take it.

Margaret: I’m not dissing you. Unlike okra, collards actually, or their ancestors so to speak, I think they’re native to parts of Europe and even maybe up into the UK. That species is not … It’s not from Africa. It’s not from, you know, like so many other what we think of as “Southern,” right, Southern traditions. It comes from Europe I think, doesn’t it?

Chris: Yeah. I’ve been putting a fair bit of thought into this myself because, you know, I’m a definite transplant from England into the South, but at the same time a lot of my agriculture, my passion about food, really ramped up when I came to the South, despite growing up in a gardening family. I really dove into it when I came to the South.

So things like peanuts and sweet potatoes and okra and all these heat-loving crops are really where I got my founding in agriculture, which is strange because I’m British and we can’t grow any of these things in England.

And when we start looking at the history of these crops, and a lot of them came across with the slave trade from various West African countries, and there’s a very diverging cultural connection that I simply don’t have, and I’m looking at these as an outsider and really trying to do honor to that history and read about them, but they’re not part of my culture and I accept that despite dearly loving them.

But when we look at collards, they were almost, you could say they were adopted by enslaved Africans when they were brought to the South, and because they have a history in West Africa of really cooking well with these deep, thick, leafy greens. But those traditional West African greens weren’t available in the South, but collards were so they were kind of like adopted and incorporated into what’s become an African-American Southern cooking culture.

Margaret: I see.

Chris: But the actual botanical heritage of collards, funnily enough, most likely could be traced back to Britain.

Margaret: Yes.

Chris: [Laughter.] So this is a crop that potentially I have a little bit more cultural connection to because it’s a cold-loving Brassica, cole crop, that enjoys the cooler, longer days of a Northern European climate. So yeah, it’s really interesting that it’s definitely in America a Southern African American food crop, but it’s got botanical ties back to my actual homeland.

Margaret: Another thing about it is that it’s a biennial, yes?

Chris: Uh-huh.

Margaret: So like the brassicas, or biennials, I don’t know if that’s true of all of them but in this species I think they all are [note Chris’s correction below], and that means in order for it to make seed for next time, and we’re talking about heirlooms and carrying them over and so on and so forth, it has to have a second season, right?

Chris: Yeah.

Margaret: And so I saw these pictures on one of the websites, and I don’t know whether it was HeirloomCollards.org or the Utopian Seed Project, I can’t remember. Of dug up collards plants, roots and all, then the tops cut off, presumably eaten, and the little crown, like the little future leaves that are all tight and like pale green still, like “not quite ready.” [Laughter.] Like put to rest somewhere for the winter, tucked in somewhere for the winter, and then they’re going to be planted again next year, the way we would with another biennial crop that we want to save seed from, or at least that’s what we do up here in the North. You know what I mean? It has special challenges also to become a seed-saver of collards, yes? [Above, an uprooted, trimmed-back first-year collard.]

Chris: Yeah, definitely. It’s interesting because one, it needs to have that cold period in order to go into that seed production flowering cycle, so if you go too far south, then we’ve got partners in deeper into Florida and they can’t really be seed-savers because they don’t have that period of cold to trigger the flowering process. Then if you go too far north, then it’s so cold that it’ll kill the collard and so it doesn’t survive to that second season to go into its flowering reproduction cycle.

So what you’re referring to there was actually a blog post that we published on the Heirloom Collard website written by Norah Hummel, who is our Seed Savers Exchange partner in this. And so she wrote it for our site so that people could have an idea of the process. It’s actually a really fantastic blog post that talks you through the whole process with some really good photographs.

But yeah, kind of like carrots and other root crops, they’re literally taking a part of the plant to keep it alive in a dormant state over winter, to then replant it next year to have it grow out again, which is fascinating. And actually I live in this window of America where we don’t have to worry about that, where we get a cold enough winter to expose the collards to what they need to start flowering next year but it doesn’t really get so cold that it’s going to kill them.

Margaret: I see. [Below, dug, trimmed collards potted up for storage over the winter at Seed Savers Exchange to avoid the Iowa winter.]

Chris: So we can just leave ours in the field, maybe a little bit of light frost protection if it gets super-cold to just get them through those coldest nights. But in general if you just let your collards go they’ll generally survive the winter and then flower next year anyway. So it was fascinating for me to read that process, too, because while I was academically aware of it, I hadn’t seen it laid out so clearly.

Margaret: I’ll give a link to it. It was fascinating. I just loved it. I just loved it.

Chris: Then one other quick note is I think broccoli is an example of Brassica oleracea that is an annual.

Margaret: Oh, it’s an annual, O.K.

Chris: Because it’ll flower right in its first year, because that’s what you’re eating. The flower head.

Margaret: Yes. Yes. It’s true. So there are some annuals.

Chris: Yeah, so it’s a really interesting species because there’s a lot of things going on. Yeah.

Margaret: Well again, cultivars there, because we have influenced it, right? We have changed it in a sense by cultivating it, domesticating it.

Chris: Yeah. Yeah, yeah.

Margaret: Yeah. Yeah. O.K.

Chris: One more shout-out for that process that I’ve … This is another recent discovery of mine. There’s a project out in California called Project Tree Collards, and tree collards are perennial collards that will just keep growing and growing and they become massive. And the main way that they propagate the tree collards is by taking cuttings like you would a shrub or something and rooting out the cuttings, and they actually mail cuttings around the country so you’re getting a direct clone of these tree collards, and that’s crazy.

Margaret: It’s super-popular. It’s not popular in terms of millions of people doing it, but it’s like a thing, and people are really obsessed with it who get into it, and they can’t wait to get their rooted cutting for the next season and so on and so forth. Yeah, there’s definitely a fan base for the tree collards.

Chris: I think so. Yeah, yeah. It’s pretty niche, but it’s kind of fun.

Margaret: Totally fun. O.K., so this one’s a biennial. They’re not all biennials. And so this trial you said, just tell us a couple minutes about the trial. Right now in 2020, you’ve had people in different places growing some of these heirloom varieties that were collected by the work of I think two people who wrote a book not long ago about collards. Is that right? [Above, six of the trial varieties. Read about them all.]

Chris: Yeah. I think it was a little while ago now, although I don’t have the dates to my mind, but there’s a book called “Collards: A Southern Tradition from Seed to Table,” written by Edward Davis and John Morgan. Snd they did seed collecting work throughout the South to collect a whole bunch of different varieties from mainly old-timey, backyard seed savers.

So there’s this massive collection of collard seeds that were put into the USDA gene bank, and they were just stored there, and then Seed Savers Exchange started pulling out varieties and this is where Ira got involved from the Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, and they started growing out and regenerating these varieties, and that was in some ways the birth of the Heirloom Collard Project. It was like, there’s all these heirloom collards out there that are currently just sitting in a gene bank. Let’s get them out. Let’s get them grown. Let’s get them experienced and celebrated.

So this year, as part of that, we chose 20 of those varieties, and we have eight farms across the country and I’m lucky enough to be one of them in Asheville, North Carolina, growing all 20 varieties, so it’s fantastic to see them all together. So that’s quite beautiful.

But then we also opened it up to like a community science project where we reached out to our networks, and we have over 200 people across the country each of whom are growing just three varieties randomly selected from that 20, and we partnered with an organization called SeedLinked, which is kind of like a data-collecting seed-trialing platform. It’s pretty new, but they’re able to take all that… You just interviewed them. I remember reading that.

Margaret: How did you know that? Yeah, I love it. I’m so excited about it because it’s about time for us to have that technology applied to our seed evaluation, and to have a citizen-science project about seeds. Yes.

Chris: Yeah. So then amazingly, each of these people growing just three varieties were able to get all that information re-collated together and then draw meaningful conclusions based on SeedLinked’s fancy software to then be able to say which ones tastes best? Which ones are frost-tolerant? Which ones are best suited to this area? So it’s very, very exciting to have that many people participating in our first year of this concept of nationwide trialing. [Above, collard seed.]

Margaret: Wow. So in the last couple minutes, tell us. You’re in Asheville. I’m in the Northeast. So, tell us a little bit about, because we want people to order collards and try some collards and dip their toe into the world of collards, so what is this? How do we grow them? When do we grow them? Which part of our season in different climates in the country are they part of?

Chris: They’re probably a good crop to be well-suited to most regions, and you just change your timing based on where you are. For us in western North Carolina, this part of the world, we plant as a fall crop and a spring crop, so we’re lucky there. We can plant them late summer so we get a really good fall/winter harvest, but you can also plant them early spring and get them growing into the summer. Because they’re a biennial they won’t bolt like spinach, and so they will actually survive throughout the summer if you can make sure that they don’t get devastated by pests, and then go into the winter the following season, so they’re a really good long-season crop in that respect.

The further north you go, then they will have a certain point where they get taken out by cold and that’s variety-specific. You may even have more information about the super-cold hardy ones up north, but certainly they’re tough; they can go through a good amount of cold before they succumb. And then so yeah, you can basically have, I think in a lot of areas you’ll be able to grow collards more or less year-round, and just know that a winter collard tastes different to a summer collard. I think that’s an important thing to realize. There’s maybe other greens to be eaten in summer that taste better. I’m a big fan of sweet potato greens at the moment.

Margaret: Oh!

Chris: And then eat other greens in the winter which taste better, like collards.

Margaret: Right, and then with the Brassica… well, with Brussels sprouts, whatever, they say “after a frost”—kale, after a frost. You know, they like the cooling weather.

Chris: They do.

Margaret: They sweeten—and I don’t mean sweeten like sugary, but they take on that distinctive, not bitter, taste.

Chris: Yeah. I like to think of them as, they’ll survive the summer, but they’ll thrive in the cooler fall/spring weather.

Margaret: Yeah, and you said pests. Cabbage worms of various kinds, flea beetles, things like that? Is that the …

Chris: Yeah, and I learned this year ducks and chickens and groundhogs. You know, everything.

Margaret: Oops.

Chris: Oh, and goats also.

Margaret: Oops. [Laughter.]

Chris: I’ve had some larger predators this year, but they do taste good. That’s a testimony to their taste profile.

Margaret: I love it, and I’m going to give all the information about all of it. The Heirloom Collard Project and the Collards Week and how to participate in the educational events and the whole 9 yards. Chris, thank you so much for making time again, and I hope I’m going to talk to you again soon. And again, giant congratulations on your James Beard Award on the okra book. Well-deserved.

Chris: I appreciate it. It’s always a pleasure.

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