Kale has been eaten for thousands of years, and in the Middle Ages, it was used to feed both humans and livestock. Originally descended from wild cabbage, most kale varieties are native to Europe and parts of Asia.
Able to withstand frost and cold climates, kale often symbolizes the coming winter season. Kale is so traditionally popular in Scotland that kitchen gardens there are called “kale yards” and a general dinner meal is called “kail”. Germans still celebrate the arrival of winter with a dish that features kale called Grunkohl. Thomas Jefferson was said to have grown it at Monticello, and recent food critics have touted it as a superfood. One cup of kale has 80 milligrams of vitamin C, which is almost the full amount recommended for daily consumption. There’s even a National Kale Day on the first Wednesday in October!
So which varieties of kale taste best? Have you ever wondered about the difference between curly kale and flat leaf kale, and whether it matters? There are dozens of different kinds of kale, ranging from frilly and red to dinosaur skin textured and dark green. Keep reading if you want to know more about the most popular varieties of these leafy greens and their best uses in your cooking!
If you’re looking for more in-depth information about caring for kale, we’ve got articles on growing kale plants and on kale as a microgreen as well. And if you’re just hunting for info on how to harvest your kale, we have that too!
Curled Leaf Kales
Crinkly leaf kales are often seen in the store as classic kale types. They start as cute and ruffly seedlings. When kale seedlings first sprout, they are small and look like most other seedlings. Once they grow their true leaves, you will begin to see their distinctive ruffled leaves.
As they grow larger, they will form a large and hard stem on each leaf. Plants grown from seed can take 50 to 75 days to mature, so as you check your kale for caterpillars and common pests, be sure to enjoy the progression as it grows from tiny curled kale, to large frilly leaves.
Many plants can grow to be 1 to 2 feet tall, although they usually have a more sprawling growth habit. They can grow quite large, so keep this in mind when planting your kale in the garden.
Common Curly Kale
Curly kale is one of the most common types of kale you will see in the grocery store. It is a green variety with large, ruffled leaves. A popular cultivar is ‘Winterbor’, which is cold hardy and can grow 2-3 feet tall.
This is a great type of kale for salads or soups. Be sure to massage the leaves with olive oil if you are using it in a salad to soften their texture and make them easier to eat. Curly kale can be de-stemmed by tearing pieces of the leaves away from the hard stem.
Redbor is a kale that can have deep burgundy to purple leaves. It may start out as a more flat leaf, but the color, flavor, and curling of leaves is increased by cold weather. It is a hardy plant that can grow up to 5 feet tall! Redbor kale is a hybrid.
Redbor has a mild, cabbage-like taste. It is a purple kale that looks pretty in cooking, although it will lose some of its color when cooked. Use it in green salads for a pop of color!
The most popular variety is ‘Blue Curled Scotch’ kale, also called ‘Vates’ kale. This variety has blue green leaves that are very curly. It tends to be a shorter variety that grows less than 2 feet tall. It produces early, but is biennial, and can survive for two growing seasons.
Scotch kale works well in salads or stir-frys. It has a pleasant sweet and nutty flavor, and makes great chips.
Flat Leaf Kales
Flat leaf kale is different from curly leaf kale, and is much easier to chop, making it the best choice for salads or adding to soups and stews. The most popular kind is Lacinato kale, which has many names, like Dinosaur kale, Tuscan kale, or Italian kale.
As they grow larger, flat leaf kale has a more upright growth habit, and may grow taller than curly varieties, which tend to sprawl. The leaves are upright and straight, and they grow on a main stalk. Flat leaf varieties include Siberian kale, which is actually more closely related to the rapeseed plant.
Red Russian Kale
Red Russian kale is prized for its sweetness, even as a baby kale leaf. Red Russian leaves have a distinct frilly texture, with reddish stems as they grow larger, growing up to 2 to 3 feet tall. Red kale produces an early crop. There are many heirloom kale varieties of red kale. Popular cultivars include ‘Red Ursa’, a bolting resistant variety, and ‘Winter Red’, a variety with red and purple veins that turn green when cooked.
The leaves of Red Russian kale are tender and keep their sweet and slightly peppery taste, even at maturity. They are great for adding a sweet and subtle taste to salads, or even for snacking. Many gardeners grow them to eat the tender young greens.
Also known as Tuscan kale or dinosaur kale, lacinato kale is one of the most visually distinct varieties of kale. It has tall, slender bluish dark green leaves, and grows upright, often reaching several feet tall. The texture of the leaves is bumpy and looks almost like reptile skin, hence the name dinosaur kale. ‘Nero di Toscana’ is an heirloom variety from Tuscany.
Lacinato kale is great for eating raw because it has a more mild, nutty flavor. It’s also incredibly easy to de-stem. Just slide your fingers down the stem, ripping the leaves off in the process. It also makes great kale chips when tossed with olive oil.
Siberian kale is actually more closely related to families that include turnip and rutabaga than it is to other kale types. It is cold hardy and has flat, wide leaves that grow close to the ground. Unlike the other members of the Brassica oleracea family, Siberian kale is actually Brassica napus. It’s a hybrid that was probably created from cross pollination with wild plants. While other types of kale have one stalk and grow upright, this plant grows in a low cluster, which helps it tolerate much colder temperatures.
This kale variety has leaves that are more tender than other kale cultivars. It has a mild flavor that is not associated with kale, which tends to be bitter. Frost can make the leaves taste even sweeter. It also has a cabbage like flavor, so substitute it in any recipes that might call for cabbage. The best use of Siberian kale is in salads as a tender leafy green.
Other Kale Species
Apart from flat leaf and curly kale, there are some other plants that are technically kale, but are so different, that they don’t usually get considered as kale. Let’s take a look at the most common of these types, and see why they are a little different, but how they can still be delicious and useful in your garden!
Chinese kale, or Brassica oleracea, is part of the Alboglabra group. It is also called Chinese broccoli. Chinese broccoli is actually a great way to think of this plant’s growth habit. It has a hearty main stalk with leaves that can be smooth or wrinkled, just like broccoli. It has round green leaves, and does not get tall like the more popular kale varieties can. Chinese kale is a heat tolerant plant, so it can be grown year round in warmer climates.
The flowering stalks, buds, and young leaves of Chinese broccoli are best for cooking. Much like traditional broccoli, the stem of this plant can become tough and too fibrous to eat. The leaves, buds, and flowers can be steamed or stir-fried just like any other type of leafy green kale.
Savoy is a type of cabbage in the Brassica family. Salad savoy is a cross between kale and other Brassicas like cabbage and cauliflower. It’s part of the savoy family, and it’s full name is Brassica oleracea var. Sabauda. It grows in a dense head, and as a result of cross breeding, is multicolored with pink and red or white leaves, as well as green leaves. The leaves of Savoy sit in a bunch directly on the ground, and it looks similar to cabbage.
Savoy is mild and earthy, and salad savoy has been bred to have a mild mellow flavor that can be used in almost any type of cooking! Look for it in your grocery store, as it has been bred specifically for this purpose, and is almost impossible to find as seed. Enjoy this leafy green in salad, wraps, or soups. It can be steamed or fried as well.
Portugese kale is a rare variety of kale that is a main ingredient in the popular Portugese dish caldo verde. This is a unique plant that changes rapidly as it grows: first it forms large outer leaves, much like collards, but as it grows, the leaves curl in towards the center of the plant like cabbage. It grows in a bunching head, and much like the other unique varieties of kale, it does not get tall. It is heat tolerant and has huge, paddle-shaped leaves. A popular cultivar is ‘Tronchuda Beira’.
This plant is sweet and tender, with a mild rich taste. The leaves can easily be separated from the thick stem. It is popular in stews and soups like the Portuguese caldo verde or the caldo gallego from the Galicia region of Spain. It grows prolifically, and just a few leaves are enough to fill your soup!
So there you have it: there are dozens of varieties of kale. This leafy green packs more vitamin C than most other vegetables, and is incredibly cold hardy. Many varieties are sweetened by frost, while others have been bred for colorful or curly leaves. Kale also encompasses a large family of plants, even some that are not traditionally considered kale!
About the writer, Rebecca Hendricks:
Hi there, I’m Rebecca! I grew up loving plants, but they didn’t always love me back. My grandparents and great-grandmother always let me help out in their gardens when I was young, but I couldn’t quite figure the gardening thing out on my own.
One year, I decided to do some research to figure out how I could grow peppers on my apartment balcony, and it worked! I realized gardening is a skill you learn, not an innate talent you are born with.
I’m a Master Gardener Volunteer in Florida, and I’m currently in Year 2 of flipping my all grass yard (front and back) to a mix of natives, pollinator and wildlife friendly patches, a food forest, and raised beds. I raise Coturnix quail, and I would love to add chickens to my flock one day.
I absolutely love sharing my gardening knowledge with others, and I’m always happy to help!