When fall begins to arrive, we expect to see potted mums and pansies and pumpkins, but more and more we are also seeing ornamental cabbage as part of the autumnal shift in our gardens and our decorating repertoire. I don’t remember when I first became so fond of them. Never a big fan of the potted mum to ring in the season (my mother and I had a long standing debate about this), the ornamental cabbage must have caught my eye as an antidote and it has risen in status in my mind and around my house.
Ornamental cabbage (Brassica oleracea), also known as flowering cabbage (although this is misleading because they really don’t flower, and what I think this refers to is how they can look like flowers, like a rose even), are used as annuals by most and can be found at most garden centers this time of year. Miniature ornamental cabbages are also becoming more popular in floral arrangements, and many flower farms and florist can provide them. I have seen photographs of brides carrying them in their fall bouquets. And one bride was carrying a wrapped bouquet of nothing but ornamental cabbages. I was a fall bride and had these been available, I wonder if I would have thought to use them in this way (one can only hope).
What I like about the ornamental cabbage is its interesting shape (yes, it’s related to the cabbage that we eat and actually is edible but I wouldn’t recommend it because of its bitter taste and most likely it has been treated with pesticides), its lovely layers of leaves, and the many shades it comes in, from chalky white and sage green to pink and mauve to aubergine.
I will admit that I had to convince my husband to give these unlikely specimens a chance. And they can be a bit awkward to work with at first: planting them and using them in floral arrangements can take some effort and practice.
In the garden, they should be planted in the ground and in containers when the days become cooler as they prefer colder temperatures. Their color actually becomes more vivid as the temperature drops. They should be placed in a sunny location and planted so that the lowest leaves are flush with the surface soil. Don’t be afraid to really bury the roots and get the cabbage very snug. You have to play around with positioning them so that they look smart and not silly. Give them plenty of water.
I think they are most elegant when planted in urns—I love them in tall black urns all alone. They are also charming in terra cotta pots and are a nice compliment to mums, pansies, late lavender, and fall grasses. I’ve paired them with trailing ivy, which was quite simple and attractive. And I have used them in my window boxes mixed in with other plants, but I might have to let them have the leading role this year.
Around the house or for special events they can be stunning. Again, in a mass arrangement of just one or two kinds of flowers, don’t be afraid of cutting the stems rather short so that just the flower sits at the top of the container. And in more complex designs, use some wire wrapped around the stem to help with flexibility and movement.
What is more elegant than one or two miniature ornamental cabbages in a mint julep cup? (see photo at the top of this post) Or accompanying other fall flowers and foliage in a luscious arrangements where they make us take a double look? What is that oddity? A cabbage? Yes. A cabbage.