Perennial Kale Breeding Project

Oregon-based plant breeder Chris Homanics is working to develop diverse perennial kale lines that taste great, resist a variety of diseases and pests, and stand up to extreme weather in diverse growing conditions throughout the country.

Your assistance will help advance these important genetics much faster. Plant genetics and farming in general must be rooted in the community and commons, and as such must remain collaborative. In this spirit, the seed was released under the OSSI pledge. (See www.osseeds.org for more information.)
Description

In this project we will work collaboratively to improve open-pollinated perennial kale (Brassica oleracea ramosa) for a wide variety of climates and conditions as well as general pest and disease resistance. This population was created by working with a uniquely diverse collection of plants amassed over the last decade. Volunteers are being recruited in order to better identify unique and important plants to include in future crosses. 

After freely sharing seeds with a group of EFN volunteer growers two years ago — and unfortunately not receiving reports back from most volunteers — this time I am asking volunteers to literally "buy in" to this project by spending $5.00 (plus shipping) to receive seeds and participate in the project. Seeds can be bought easily through this page on the EFN seed store website. If you don't have a credit card or refuse to buy anything online, please contact me directly.

GENETICS OF PERENNIAL KALE - A little backstory on the genetics of Brassica oleracea ramosa: This subspecies name, ramosa, means “bushing” in Portuguese. Most seldom flower. Only a handful of examples of this subspecies exist anymore. Over the next few years, I hope to import the remaining 20 or so to rescue the best from obscurity. They are often believed to be representatives of early cultivated forms selected from wild Brassica oleracea still found throughout Europe. Genetically they are truly distinct from all other studied Brassica oleracea. Several recessive traits appear to be involved in what makes a plant perennial. Possibly three or more recessive genes are at play. This may explain why our B. oleracea crop types seem to have mostly lost perenniality especially with post-Victorian era varieties. Also, there may be some perennial genetics distinctive to just bush kales. The project seeks to recover fertility back into this perennial phenotype, maintaining this perennial-ness, while focusing on flavor and disease resistance. A collaborative growout of this genepool across diverse environments in the US will advance these goals.

BACKGROUND STORY - The history of this material began with the work of my friend Graham Jenkins-Belohorska in Wales, UK. During the early 2000’s and onward, a small group of us had been communicating about perennial kales, both Brassica napus and Brassica oleracea. Graham had the good fortune of acquiring two related but very different perennial Brassica oleracea ramosa selections, both historic European varieties, ‘Purple Tree Collards’ (PTC) and ‘Daubenton.’ Daubenton was once a forage kale, grown by seed in the Victorian era and earlier. PTC is likely older and its history is obscured in the past. There are a handful of Daubenton plants remaining in Europe and most have not been reported to flower, so it was exciting when he found a form that was known to flower. If you have not seen these two kales, they are unlike any other in several ways. First, they are both very prone to branching and very shy of flowering. Both grow their branches long enough to flop down over time, sometimes advantageously rooting where they touch the ground. PTC is deeply purple and much taller while Daubenton is stout with small yellowish green leaves. To the surprise of our small group, Graham reported in 2011 that his PTC had begun flowering along with his Daubenton. In his plot was a cadre of his favorite Brassicas: ‘Redbor’ kale, Brussels Sprouts, Cabbage, ‘Lacinato’ kale, ‘Walking Stick Tree Kale’, variegated ornamental cabbage, and kohlrabi. He carefully performed hand-pollinations between the two perennial kales and back and forth between the perennials and everything else. In the Spring of 2012, I received a bit of seed from that cross which became the nucleus for this project. From this seed, I grew out approximately 400 plants. Only around 80 survived a particularly cold Pacific NW winter. The majority were heavily bushing and often had the floppy stems of their parent plants. But now they exhibited all sorts of leaf shapes and colors – from ruffled lacinato-like plants, to bushing kales with small leaves akin to Daubenton, to variegated types of various colors, and extremely tall plants reminiscent of Walking Stick Tree Kale, and many more! I then went on to include several more perennial kales I had collected from the West Coast and also the rare and delicately textured Danish Kale called Spis Bladene. Some of the perennials included a naturalized kale patch on the Puget Sound, a collard originally collected from the Umpqua River in Southern Oregon, and a selection of a collard in the Eugene area which is probably related to a green-collard from the Bay Area. Now, after thousands and thousands of plants, several rounds of selection has guided the population toward disease and pest resistance, drought hardiness, cold hardiness, vigor, and of course perenniality.

[Note from EFN organizers: As of now, this is the only EFN project asking volunteers to pay to participate. While the cost is pretty nominal, we didn't come to this decision lightly — since we strongly believe in the free sharing of resources — and, in full transparency, it was our decision (albeit taken in consultation with Chris). We asked Chris to direct volunteers to purchase their seeds through our website for a few reasons: 1) We hope that by having volunteer growers "buy in" to the project, they will be more committed and communicative than last time around; 2) We spent over $125 to get these seeds tested for black leg fungus, a pest responsible for a mandatory quarantine of all Brassica seeds from the Pacific Northwest; and 3) Of course we also want more people to visit our seed store website. We are a non-profit cooperative, and having been doing this work without paying ourselves for over four years now, we think it's only fair to ask volunteers to share in at least a bit of the costs — especially to participate in such a fun, exciting and popular project. Thank you for your understanding.]

Researcher background
Please see my bio page.
Are you seeking volunteer growers or other types of volunteers?
Yes, seeking volunteer growers
How many volunteers do you need?
50
What will you ask volunteers to do?
You will be required to send an email to Chris that you have fully read and understand the agreement and that you agree to follow all the rules. If you are unsure about committing to all these rules, please do not request seeds.

This is a multi-year project and you are required to remain in contact for the duration of the project. Communication throughout the season from both of us is important for success with this project. Ideally three updates per year are required: once during establishment of the plants in the field, about whether you were successful or not; next, an update in September; in the second year and beyond, an update in winter about survival, usually in January or February in colder areas.

You, The Grower, are to grow out at least 40 plants, but the more the merrier. This is a large enough sample size for useful data about your growing conditions. Use the methods and procedures that you typically use to grow kale, whether that is direct seeding or planting in trays to transplant. Of course, choose a plot with adequate fertility and a mostly full sun spot.

Depending on your results you may be requested to send back woody cuttings of some of the best plants so that a composite of the best plants from throughout the country can be created. Participants will eventually receive divisions of the most promising plants to trial in their unique environment. For this to be a success, it is necessary that you agree to take photographs and share them in a timely manner. If the plants produce seed, you will be asked to return 75% of all mature seed for evaluation and use in subsequent years. You may be asked to keep separate seed from certain plants that are especially resilient, in other cases it may be fine that seed from all plants is bulked. Please thresh the seed so that it is at least free of debris and insects (it’s easy to do and I’m happy to explain the process).

Keeping a few field notes is necessary for the project. However you feel comfortable accurately recording the data is fine by me. Things such as plants resistance to diseases or pests, plants that thrived in drought, or survived the worst winter had to throw at it. I can assist with this. Also, which plants appear to be the best overall or the ones that are the most novel or attractive in appearance.

During the year, you are encouraged to harvest from the plants, cook and eat them, to evaluate them for their fiber content (i.e. how chewy raw or cooked the leaves are) and any bitterness/sweetness your taster detects. Remembering summer heat and drought makes kale more bitter, note which plants taste the best during that time. Cold will cause your plants to sweeten and loose much of their bitters. Remember insect predation and soil fertility issues (like a lack of Calcium) will also affect flavor.

Your findings and regular reports will help the selection process next Spring, when I will work with you to select only the best, most resilient plants to go to seed. I like to use colored landscape flags to signify different traits to remember later. These characteristics are almost as important as the perennial trait which won’t be known until the plants flower at least one cycle. Lastly, some plants will flower in a following year or possibly not at all.

Let's work together to mine the true gems and create something truly spectacular.
Is this a multi-year project?
Yes
Can volunteers expect to be able to keep some germplasm (seeds, bulbs, cuttings, spores, etc) at the close of the project?
Yes, of course
Anything else?
I look forward to working with you on this project!
Researcher Location

97374
United States