Kale Varieties: 15 Different Types of Kale Cultivars
Are you thinking of adding some kale to your vegetable garden? Finding the right variety can be a tough choice! In this article, organic gardening expert Logan Hailey examines 15 of the most popular kale cultivars to help you find the best for your garden.
Kale is a cool-weather nutritious green that is practically synonymous with farm fresh eating. In spite of its modern trendiness, this cabbage-family vegetable has been cultivated for at least 2,000 years! All that time has given gardeners and plant breeders ample time to develop some of the most unique types of kale you can imagine: ruffly, crinkly, flat, green, red, blue-tinted, and even purple.
This abundance of diversity offers exciting new opportunities in the garden as well as in the kitchen. Because of the nutrient content, and the many cultivars available, this popular green has become a staple in many vegetable gardens across the world over the last decade. Kale is easy to grow, and packed with nutrients.
So, which types of kale should you plant in your garden? Deciding that can be tricky, depending on your soil type and climate. Let’s jump in and look at our favorite kale varieties for your home vegetable garden!
Growing a Diverse Kale Garden
Botanically known as Brassica oleracea, kale is ubiquitous in health and foodie circles today. But anyone who eats large amounts of this nutrient-dense green can quickly break the bank buying $3 bunches at the farmer’s market or grocery store.
Thankfully, this vegetable is remarkably easy to grow in your garden. The seeds are very affordable and don’t take much effort to tend. Plus, the plants are like a gift that keeps on giving. You can sow it in the spring and continuously harvest its leaves all throughout the summer, fall ,and even into the winter.
By planting your own greens, you also gain access to dozens of unique varieties that you can’t find anywhere else. If you’re bored with regular bland curly kale, you will be amazed by how much flavor, sweetness, and texture homegrown kale can have! You can trial as many cultivars as you’d like since there is no risk of cross-pollination in your garden.
If you’re looking for the best kale varieties for your unique climate and taste buds, we’ve brought together the top 15 organic and heirloom options coveted by organic farmers and gardeners around the country.
Four Main Types of Kale
The Brassicaceae, or Cole Crop family, is a medley of mix-and-matched cabbage cousins including kale, bok choy, collards, brussel sprouts, cauliflower, broccoli, mustards, and beyond. Kale in particular originated as a wild mustard-like cabbage plant native to the Mediterranean.
As the plant was domesticated and seeds were disseminated across Europe, kale greens were refined into four major different types: the Curly kales of modern grocery stores, the Lacinato kales of Italy, the ultra-cold-tolerant Russian kales of Scandinavia, and the more recently developed baby kale microgreens.
Before we dig into the best seed varieties, it helps to understand the key differences between the different kale categories. Let’s take a deeper look at each category that you’ll end up choosing from.
When you think of kale, curly kale is what most commonly comes to mind. These crinkly, ruffled leaves are found bunched together in nearly every supermarket in the United States. Curly kales are distinctively mild-flavored and easy to cook with.
These types are most commonly used for chips, green smoothies, and pestos. Curly kale leaves grow whorled around a woody upright stem. These curly varieties can be green, bluish, or purplish-red in color.
Lacinato kale is often called Tuscan or “Dinosaur” kale because of its Italian origins and scale-like savoy texture. The deeply blue-green elongated leaves of Lacinato types are popular amongst chefs and foodies.
These plants tend to be exceptionally vigorous and can be continuously harvested from early spring through late fall and into winter in some regions. Lacinato kale varieties have been integral to Mediterranean cooking for hundreds of years. They are perfect for topping pizzas, stirring into scrambles, and sauteing.
Russian or Flat Leaf Kale
The most cold-tolerant of all cultivars, the Russian or “Flat Leaf” kale category is most commonly grown as a fall crop or an overwintering green. The leaves are flatter and more open like collard greens, but with frilly serrated edges and a tender texture.
Frost makes Russian kales exceptionally sweet due to the accumulation of sugars in the leaves. These varieties can survive down to -10°F and have been cultivated in extreme northern climates for centuries.
Baby Kale or Microgreens
Technically any kale can be seeded with close spacing and harvested as a “baby kale.” However, modern breeding efforts have helped create special mixes and varieties of kale that are specifically suited to baby green and microgreen production.
These varieties include mixes of many shapes and colors that can be harvested in as little as 10-30 days. They are also selected for quick grow-back times (so you can get multiple cuts of the crop) as well as superb flavor baby green flavor.
It’s worth mentioning that kale has also been bred to grow as a gorgeous ornamental that you may have spotted around town. This cabbage-like floret is becoming increasingly popular in urban landscapes and even in little bouquets. This article focuses specifically on edible kale varieties, but you can be on the lookout in seed catalogs for unique variegated decorative kales.
Top Kale Varieties
When it comes to the best varieties, it can be a matter of opinion. Some people like intense earthy kales or the nutty lightly bitter ones. Others prefer the sweetest, most tender kale possible.
While some cultivars are bred specifically to handle certain conditions like extreme cold or bolt resistance in the heat, many varieties are simply bred to be more fun and tasty to eat. There is truly something for every gardener!
Don’t be afraid to test out as many types of seeds as you’d like in your garden. Because you harvest the greens, you don’t have to worry about cross-pollination. A medley garden is a great way to trial what grows best in your region as well as what tastes best in your kitchen.
The signature Lacinato-type, ‘Black Magic’ has been a farmer staple for decades. It is a selection of the well-maintained Toscano kale line. This variety is known for its uniformity, dark bluish-green leaves, and beautiful savoyed texture. The tall plants yield elongated, attractive leaves that bunch beautifully together.
This variety is open-pollinated and available as a certified organic seed. It takes about 65 days to mature and can be harvested spring through winter. In zones 6 and warmer, this frost-tolerant cultivar can grow almost year-round. It has an earthy flavor that sweetens with frost.
The bold purple midribs and blue-green flattened leaves of this Lacinato type stand out stupendously against the rest. ‘Dazzling Blue’ is, well, dazzling! The plants grow very tall and fast, producing a nice variability in leaf shape and coloration. Bred in Oregon by Wild Garden Seed, this cultivar tastes as beautiful as it looks. It’s open-pollinated and takes around 60 days to reach full-sized leaf harvest.
A classic curly type, ‘Winterbor’ is one of the most common commercially grown kales that you find in grocery stores. It has thick blue-green leaves that curl downward and deeply ruffle at the edges, creating ample volume and texture for delicious meals.
With its winter hardiness and great early spring productivity, ‘Winterbor’ is the standard curly kale for a reason. It yields excellently and tastes great. It is a vigorous plant, often growing 2-3 feet tall with continuous production of curled ruffly leaves. This cultivar takes about 60 days to mature.
With vibrant purple-to-burgundy colored leaves, ‘Redbor’ is an exciting and radiant addition to your garden. This red version of Winterbor has all the frost tolerance and frilly texture you love, plus deep anthocyanin-rich coloration.
The flavor and color will intensify even more in colder weather, making this the perfect option for a color pop in fall and winter gardens. ‘Redbor’ is delicious cooked or raw massaged with oil. This hybrid takes 55 days to harvest.
Another ultra vigorous curly variety, ‘Westlandse Winter’ is bulky, fast-growing, and extremely dense. It is moderately early and suited for spring, fall, or winter production. These leaves have the most volume of any cultivar and act as the perfect vessel for sauces, oils, and spices. The deep greenish-blue leaves appear like fluffy layered ruffles on 2-foot tall plants.
Mature plants can handle down to about 10°F. ‘Westlandse Winter’ is an open-pollinated Scottish variety that is ready to harvest in 60 days.
One of the hardiest varieties, the gorgeous purple stems and mineral-rich wide leaves of ‘Red Russian’ make for a show-stopping winter garden display. This variety provides continuous harvests of flattened, oak-leaf-shaped leaves that keep growing back all season long.
As one of the most mineral-rich and dense-textured cultivars, ‘Red Russian’ is a classic heirloom veggie that is specially adapted to the extreme cold. It originated in Siberia and Russian traders first brought it to Canadian and American growers in the late 1800s. It matures to full size leaves in just 50 days.
More than just a white-ribbed version of Red Russian kale, this is another selection from Oregon-based Wild Garden Seeds, who crossed Brassica napus ‘red Russian with ‘Siberian’ Kales in the 1980s. This ultra cold-hardy, crisp and sweet flatter-leaved kale has lovely serrated edges and a tender texture for winter salads, soups, and sautees. The frilly margins also add a nice touch to baby kale mixes.
When it comes to cream-of-the-crop baby kale mixes, it’s pretty hard to compete with this celebratory medley of a dozen or more cultivars. The balance of reds, greens, purples, and whites creates a beautiful display on your plate, plus the decadent layering of unique textures and shapes creates a lovely salad experience.
These baby kales grow incredibly fast and have been selected for their strong regrowth potential. This means you can cut-and-come-again to harvest from this mix at least 2-4 times in one planting. Just be sure not to cut too close to the ground (leaving an inch of stem is usually plenty to facilitate quick regrowth). Perfect for the impatient gardener, ‘Kalebration’ mix takes just 29 days to mature but is less frost-hardy than other types.
Blue Curled Scotch
This heirloom superfood variety has some of the highest antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and cancer-preventative compounds. This Scotland-native kale has a unique nutty flavor that you can’t find in other types. It is delectably sweet after a light freeze and makes some of the best kale chips you’ve ever tasted.
‘Blue Curled Scotch’ is vigorous, frost-hardy, and compact in its growth habit. It takes 55 days to reach maturity and can be harvested all season long.
Ultra-curly leaves add beauty and interest to the garden as well as the plate. This variety holds its reddish tint on top of a blue-green background color, whereas its cousin ‘Redbor’ has a red coloration sprinkled atop a bright green leaf. Either way, the scarlet color intensifies with frosts.
The plants aren’t as uniform as other types, but they are certainly vigorous and resilient. Averaging 2-3 feet tall with an upright growth habit, this curly red kale takes just 55 days to mature to its full leaf size. It’s also a great option for baby leaf production.
Nero di Tuscana
This Italian heirloom dates back as far as 1885. It is likely the originator of many modern “dino” kale varieties. The scale-like crinkled leaves are flatter and broader than other Lacinato types. It has a nice curl to the tips and lovely dark coloration reminiscent of blue spruce.
The flavor of larger leaves is strong, but delicious when cooked. Younger leaves are more tender and sweet. These plants grow about 3 feet tall and produce hefty yields of elongated puckered leaves beginning about 55 days from seeding.
This hardy rounded-leaf kale from England is a super vigorous heirloom with leaves reminiscent of collards. What makes this variety unique is how it stays tender even when it reaches a large size. ‘Madeley’ is perfect for winter greenhouse production in super cold northern climates, or outdoor winters in more moderate climates.
The plants withstand freeze-and-thaw cycles while upholding their structure and crunch. The spring raab shoots are also a special treat. ‘Madeley’ is a special import that was brought to the U.S. via Adaptive Seeds in collaboration with the Heritage Seed Library of England. It takes about 60 days to mature.
This unique variety stands out from other cultivars because it is technically from the Brassica napus species (rather than Brassica oleracea). This means it is more closely related to turnip greens than to the other varieties we discuss here. As a result, it grows wider flat leaves closer to the ground.
If you love tender raw kale salads, ‘Siberian’ is the choice for you. The pale green and blue-tinted leaves have ruffled margins and gorgeous white stems. The inner leaf surface is more flattened than other types, making it a great vessel for sauces and seasonings.
‘Siberian’ is the most palatable and mild variety, thanks to its low bitterness and high sweetness. The earthy aroma and super soft texture make it enjoyable for simple salads or light sautees. These plants grow super rapidly to about 18-26” tall. They are ultra frost tolerant thanks to their origins in the far northern parts of Europe and Asia.
Arguably the most beautiful kale population, these seeds produce various colors and types of wavy leaf edges. Some leaves are glazed green, others silvery and light green, and others have purple stems with shades of red. This variety is a beast in the garden and super easy to strip from the stem when used in the kitchen.
Inspired by a breeding project with the Culinary Breeding Network, ‘Simone Broadleaf’ kale comes from a super vigorous Gulag Stars kale population. These plants grow incredibly quickly and seem to bounce back within a day or two of harvesting. The gorgeous diversity of crinkly, curly, flattened, and smooth leaves means you can get the best cultivars in one seed packet. ‘Simone’ takes 25 days to reach baby size and 55 days for full-size leaves.
The frilly attractive leaves of this unique kale has the perfect tender lacy texture to enjoy raw in salads or lightly steamed in dishes. ‘Bear Necessities’ takes just 25 days to produce baby leaves and 50 days to full size. The plants are upright, vigorous, and have a beautiful appearance reminiscent of fennel fronds.
This cultivar was developed by crossing Russian and Siberian kales with mizuna (a type of serrated mustard). The result is a uniquely mild, sweet, cold-tolerant variety that happens to be resistant to the swede midge pest as well.
Frequently Asked Questions
Which is the best variety of kale?
The best tasting variety is a matter of preference, however ‘Black Magic’ takes the cake for the mildest flavor and enjoyable texture in sautees. For raw eating, opt for a ‘Siberian’ or baby kale blend. For chips, nothing beats ‘Blue Curled Scotch’.
Which type of kale is the healthiest?
Recent research comparing 25 different varieties revealed that curly kale varieties have the most glucosinolates, which are linked to cancer-fighting properties. Red and colored cultivars have higher levels of anthocyanins.
All kale is considered healthy for you, however the most nutrient-dense variety has to be grown in biologically-rich soil. After all, microorganisms mediate over 90% of the mineral uptake of plants and in humans. Healthier soil means a healthier garden and healthier humans!
What type of kale is the most tender?
‘Siberian’ and ‘Madeley’ kale are two of the most tender varieties we’ve ever tasted. While most baby kales remain tender up to 6” in size, these cultivars stand out because even the larger mature leaves are supple and easy to eat. Tenderness and sweetness improves even more with light frosts and cold weather that helps concentrate sugars in the leaf cells.
What is the sweetest kale to grow?
All varieties sweeten after frosts, but ‘Red Russian’ is renowned for its ultra sweetness in cold weather. This frost hardy kale is ideal for late fall and winter plantings. If your region doesn’t get that cold, try growing ‘Black Magic’ to still enjoy a lightly sweet non-bitter kale in a warmer climate.
Is baby kale better than regular kale?
Baby kale is simply a younger version of full-size plant. Any kale can be grown as baby kale by cutting the leaves when they are about 2-4” tall. Baby kale is not necessarily more nutritious, in fact there is some evidence that it has less nutrition because it spends so little time in the ground. Nonetheless, baby kale is delicious, ultra tender, super healthy, and crazy easy to grow! It is the perfect “supergreen” for impatient gardeners.
What kale is best for salad?
Baby kale or microgreen blends are ideal for salad mixes. ‘Kalebration’ is one of the best salad medleys on the market because of its perfect balance of colors, textures, and flavors.
If you prefer to cut up full size kale for your salads, go for the ‘Siberian’, ‘Bear Necessities’, or ‘White Russian’ cultivars. All of these varieties will taste delicious when lightly massaged with oil (to help break the cell walls) and drizzled in lemon.
Kale is one of the most beginner-friendly crops you can grow in your garden. It isn’t too finicky about fertility or water, and it is tolerant of spring and fall frosts. Kale comes in a vast diversity of shapes, textures, colors and flavors. Best of all, many cultivars can be mixed-and-matched for the ultimate kale taste test with your family and friends.
This rapid growing brassica provides quick gratification in the form of tasty nutritious greens that can be harvested again and again. When picking kale, don’t forget to harvest the oldest leaves first by cutting or lightly ripping back from the central stalk. This will ensure that you get as much regrowth as possible to fill your fridge (and your neighbors’) with green smoothies, juices, salads, sautes, and kale chips galore!