There was a veritable vegetable garden on the brow of the shingle ridge at Cogden Beach, Dorset, at the beginning of April. What seemed to be mysterious dark patches on the beach when viewed from a distance, turned out to be the most colourful collection of Sea Kale plants, Crambe maritima Linnaeus. It’s difficult to imagine how something so large and robust could find enough nourishment and freshwater to not only survive but to thrive on a seemingly barren bank of pebbles.
They are actually perennial plants that overwinter underground. I have come across pieces of dried stem with their very distinctive markings on other Dorset beaches without knowing what they could be. When the new leaves start to appear from the old brown wrinkled stems in early spring, they are the most amazingly beautiful deep vivid purple. The fresh curled up leaves look waxy or even velvety. I fear my pictures do not do them justice.
Later the leaves turn green and resemble cabbage leaves. Each new season the leaves grow longer and can reach upto half a metre. When the Sea Kale plant is five years old, it produces flowering branches from May to August smothered with small white flowers. These develop into fruit that generates between 5 – 10,000 seeds. The above ground plant dries and breaks off at the end of the growing period
Sea Kale is a rather rare plant in Britain and on the continent. This may partly be due to the fact that it is delicious and was frequently eaten in times gone by when other fresh vegetables were scarce at the beginning of spring. It is now protected by the Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981) in Britain and by national law in France.
However, it is still possible to cultivate your own if you have the garden space and the patience; or to buy supplies from one of the few specialist horticulturalists. It is grown forced and out of light, rather like rhubarb. The stems are cooked and eaten like asparagus. There are loads of recipes on the Web.
The photograph above shows the new season’s Sea Kale leaves emerging from the (mostly) underground overwintering stems. Below is a close-up view of one of the velvety new-growth curly leaves.
Revision of a post first published 26 April 2009
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