Calling all botanists

It’s time to play my favorite springtime game: Annual or Perennial?

Since we started growing food, the distinction has been a continual irritant. Why is it that the things you want to eat, like tomatoes and peppers, grow on persnickety plants that have to be handled just so and then die in October, while plants that yield nothing you want to eat, like tulips and switchgrass, reliably come up of their own accord, season after season?

I know, I know, there’s asparagus and there’s rhubarb, but asparagus and rhubarb will take you only so far, come dinner time. I want perennial tomatoes and peppers. And eggplant and squash. And collard greens.

Which brings me back to my favorite springtime game.

I’ve always thought that collards were an annual, but I’ve got a few specimens in the garden that say otherwise. Last year, they flourished, and we ate collards well into the winter. Eventually, the leaves that were left died back, and I’d thought they’d given up the ghost. But now, after an unseasonably warm winter, they are rising from the dead, and new leaves are sprouting.

A quick Googling is not definitive. Per Wikipedia: “The plant is a biennial where winter frost occurs, and perennial in even colder regions.”

Now what kind of botanical magic is that? Let’s start with the whole idea of a biennial. I know about biennials because of parsley, and I am here to tell you that biennials are the biggest tease in the botanical world. Once it gets past its first year, you know it’s not an annual. And, if it’s not an annual, it must be a perennial. Q.E.D.

But then you suffer a crushing disappointment when it dies in the second year and you find out it’s not an annual, it’s not a perennial, and you’re an idiot because you never even heard of a biennial. I can understand plants that die when the weather gets cold, even if I never develop a real fondness for them. But how does a plant know to die the second time it gets cold?

And then there’s the part about collards being a perennial in “even colder” regions. Cape Cod is “even colder” than lots of places, including places like Manhattan in which a winter frost definitely occurs but you don’t care because your building has central heating and from which only people who are “even stupider” leave to go to places where you have to cut down trees to stay warm.

Wait, weren’t we talking about collard greens?

Last year, the ones in the hoophouse, which we planted the previous November, bolted in about June, presumably because the hoophouse simulates a frost-free climate. The ones in the garden, started in the hoophouse in the spring and planted outside in May, didn’t bolt. They grew very thick stems and big, healthy leaves.

Since they’re still there, still alive, and growing a new crop of leaves, I’m assuming I should leave them there, but I know there’s always a chance that there’s a good reason not to. Do second-year collards taste bitter? Do they house some obscure kind of over-wintering insect?

And, most importantly, is Cape Cod “even colder” enough to turn collards perennial, or will I, come November, be faced with the biennial heartbreak? If I know now it’ll cushion the blow.

35 people are having a conversation about “Calling all botanists

  1. I guess it’s easier to think about when it seeds if you’re trying to categorize it as a, b, or p. Of course I suppose that could confuse anyone, because annuals and perennials bloom (seed) every year, it’s just that annuals, you know, die in one year. Biennials simply seed their second year…unless they get chilled and heated, like your hoophouse fare, then they do it in one.

    Personally, I have kale growing perennially in my greenhouses (hoop houses). I think one plant is on its third year in there. And yes, it tastes fine…and puts out babies, so it stays.

  2. There is a variety of collards that is perennial called tree collards. Bountiful Gardens sells cuttings They are supposed to be a variety of collards that just keeps growing. I have wanted to try them, but I just haven’t gotten around to it yet. Maybe that potential is in all collards, but some strains just poop out faster.

  3. Did you tell us the variety of the plant or did I miss that part?

    I imagine if it is the regular garden variety of collars that you will see new growth followed by flower and seed production, just as any other brassica.

  4. Going from extreme climate to extreme (Phx to Cape Cod to Portland) has been interesting in that manner.

    In arizona, Calla Lillies (which I know you have no interest in) are annuals. Everywhere else, perennial. Strawberries aren’t perennial in Arizona.

    Herbs, however, I found to be perennial in Cape Cod, when they should be annuals (cilantro, parsley, delicate things, not like, rosemary)

    In Portland, you have to force certain plants (like kiwis) to ripen.

    So what I’m getting at here is…

    Gd is mean. 🙂

  5. I have no experience with collard greens, but have the same thing happening with my swiss chard. It survived this crazy winter and I’m tempted to leave it be if it will produce happy healthy leaves all summer!

  6. It is interesting that Amanda mentions Phoenix. A nursery I visited had tags on fruit trees, “125”, “250”. I asked about the tags. They told me that these trees would bear fruit if they had at least 125 or 250 hours of freezing weather.

    When Mom planted tulips, she stuck the things in the freezer for a month or so, first.

    So evidently some roots and trees need the dormancy of freezing to trigger the hormones that result in fertility.

    Thistles here, many of them, are biennial. You can tell. The ones that pop up early, with big talll stalks, those were last year’s survivors. The smaller rosettes are fresh from the seed. radishes might be biennial, maybe carrots? the turnips that started sprouting on my counter seem to be, because I planted the things and the greens are coming on nicely.

    My own guess about the bolting collards is that the higher temps of the shelter encouraged the reproductive (bolting) cycle, and that sent the plant into a sacrificial, reproductive cycle.

    My celeriac from two years ago is coming up again (I didn’t know when to harvest it, so . . ). And the Hollyhock I didn’t know what else to do with. Three of the four strawberries I put out are back, though the neighbor’s cow ate them off this winter (the grasshoppers took the fourth along with all the runners). I never did figure out how I lost all the marigolds.

    Apparently the clove of garlic I put out two years ago and harvested last summer — I missed four. In a row. They are here; one is a regular cluster.

    My miniature roses haven’t bloomed since October, but there they are. They might be getting ready to renew leaves and buds.

    Apparently peppers are supposed to be perennial in warm enough climates. The peppers growing in a window pot on my kitchen window sill have been producing small fruit since last fall; the tomatoes won’t persist much longer. Last year after the spring warmed I moved that year’s window wonders to the garden. The peppers did OK till the grasshoppers started stripping them; the tomatoes both dried up and died.

    I wonder what a perennial carrot would be like.

    • Putting your bulbs in the fridge for a few weeks is S.O.P. for tulips down here. When I was into it, I even dug the tulips up, stored them in the shed, and then refridgerated them before the next season. I’ve not done it any other way, but I read that they don’t flower so well in warm climates without this handling.

  7. Interesting question. It would probably be educational to look at the growth habit in the native range of the plant in question, and to keep in mind that for a plant, it’s all about sex. By that I mean the A, P, or B is typically (in botanical terms) related to seed production. Annuals will throw seed in their first year (and some can be over-wintered to seem like Perennials). Perennials won’t seed their first year, and some need that cold snap to start the seed cycle (think carrots). And some perennials put so much into seed production, that they keel over from the effort (much like Pacific salmon) and are thus Biennials.

    Plants we harvest for the greens (not the fruiting body) can often be persuaded to hold off going to seed, and sometimes if a flower begins (rhubarb) but is cut out, the growth can go on (as the energy isn’t put into reproduction). Mammalia analog would be a steer, big and meaty, because all energy goes into the body, not reproduction.

    At least that’s what I remember from my Biology degree, but it’s been gathering dead skin cells on a shelf for almost a decade now…

  8. Whenever I post about something like this, I’m torn between being demoralized by how little I know compared to the Commentariat and being delighted that the Commentariat is willing to share.

    I like the idea that I can get kale or collards to act like perennials (and, Laura, I’ve read about tree collards and am trying to find out if they’d live in my climate — they’re supposed to go to zone 7, but I never quite trust those numbers). So I’m just going to leave the ones in the garden to do their thing, as well as plant some more so I’ll have holdovers next year if these turn out to be B, rather than P.

    I always thought annual and perennial were hard-and-fast categories. It never occurred to me that I could manipulate my plants to behave differently by messing with the conditions or clipping the flowers.


  9. You should watch ‘Botany of Desire’. Pollan’s study of how we have shaped plants, and how they have shaped us…

    It totally speaks to the idea you shared.

    As for the ‘torn between being demoralized by how little I know compared to the Commentariat and being delighted that the Commentariat is willing to share’, I for one, know I don’t know much of anything. Good on you to step out and ask, I should more often.

  10. I have nothing intelligent to add to the commentary but I just have to say: you crack me up in nearly every post. Seriously.
    I am as far away from Cape Cod as I could be in the US but if I ever end up in your neck of the woods I’m bringing a couple bottles of wine and hoping for lessons in oyster eating.

  11. We were just debating recently if Swiss Chard and collard greens were the same thing with a different name in different parts of the country. If your pictures are of collards, I guess not. What do collard greens taste like? We don’t even get seed for that here in the garden centers. We eat a lot of Swiss chard.

  12. Loir, collards are a cabbage that never forms a head, so the leaves are a lot like cabbage. If you have ever had a cabbage that still had some of the outer leaves attached, those are very much like collards.

    Swiss chard is a beet that never forms the root part. One of the old names for chard was silver beets.

    My observations on the differences are:

    – Chard is much more tender than collards. Collards have an almost leathery texture that needs cooking to make it tender, while young chard leaves can be used in salads raw and older chard leaves need just a minute or two of heat to wilt and become tender.

    – The central stem of collards is usually so tough it it inedible and needs to be removed and discarded, while chard stems have a celery-like texture and are very enjoyable to eat.

    – Collards are definitely a cruciferous vegetable, and if they are not cooked right will stink up your house just like cabbage or brussels sprouts. Chard just turns to mush when it is over cooked.

    Both will be greedily consumed by chickens, so you have to have good fences if you have collards and/or chard and chickens.

  13. Adalynfarm — I read Botany of Desire many years ago, when it first came out. Kevin found it first, and passed it on to me. I think it’s fascinating.

    Lori and Laura — I like collards for the very reason that the leaves are pretty tough. You can cook them a long time without having them turn to mush (I roast a chicken on a bed of them in a clay pot, so they cook in the chicken juices). While I like chard just fine, I prefer the heartier greens. I’ve even discovered that you CAN eat the stems. Just chop them pretty fine and treat them like broccoli stems.

    Beth — Thanks! I love a woman who’s easily amused.

    • Tamar, roasting chicken on a bed of collards sounds wonderful. I am going to try it this weekend. I often put chunks of winter vegetables under a spatchcocked (love that word!) chicken and cook it low and slow, but I have never thought to try it with collards, and particularly with the stems.

      I agree with you that the heartier greens are more fun to cook with than the ones that overcook when if you turn your back for a second. Collards stewed in chicken broth with garlic and onion until they are almost ready to turn army green and served in the pot liquor with hot sauce is one of my favorite meals.

      • Glad you like the idea! It’s a favorite in our house. I do it in a clay pot (covered, or you might lose too much liquid and the collards might dry out), with chopped collards on the bottom, then the chicken on top of them, and cut-up root vegetables around the chicken. You get three dishes in one.

        Let me know how it turns out.

  14. It all comes down to senescence. All plants age, and botanists categorise them by the differences in their lifespan: how LONG it takes them to grow, flower, mature, set seed, and die. Annuals do the whole process in a year (ephemerals are even more prolific). Even trees senesce, though they may be hundreds of years old before they’re even middle-aged. Senescence in plants can be manipulated through different techniques (like Kingsley and his tulip bulbs) to ‘force’ a result: early flowers, more fruits, longevity etc.

    There should be no reason that you can’t keep harvesting leaves off your megastems UNTIL the plant starts setting seed – a sign it has reached the end of its life. If you’re dedicated, you can keep dead-heading the seeds which forces the plant to put energy back int growth. At least until it exhausts its supplies of nutrients, or you go away for a weekend and forget to pick off the seeds and the plant dies, happy to finish its lifecycle. But what a faff. So much easier to plant new seed every year, which is probably why people don’t nurture older kale and collard plants.

    Whether they’re bitter or not probably depends more on the cultivar and growing conditions – you’ll just have to experiment and let us all know!

  15. I thoroughly enjoy your blog. It is so interesting to read about all of your new experiences & the outcome. When I was much younger we also planted a huge garden, raised rabbits, chickens, hogs & calves out of necessity. There wasn’t much I didn’t can or freeze. Now at 64+ years we put out a small garden & buy our poultry & pork from neighbors who raise them on grass. Life is good!!

  16. Biennial. Woah. Looking forward to seeing what you decide to do—I’m currently wrestling with the same thing in my (pretty tiny) garden, where 12 lacinato kale plants decided to survive and grow into three-foot-high monsters (albeit with increasingly tiny, and sweet, leaves).

  17. Lori — Good luck with the collards! They’re one of our favorite crops.

    Jen — Thank god people actually know things. And are willing to take the time to write them down. Otherwise, what would the world come to? I did manage to keep my collards limping along in the hoophouse last year by cutting off the flowers, but constant vigilance is required and constant vigilance has never been my long suit. Eventually, I gave it up and let them go. Then I pulled them out and planted leeks, which are still there. More on that later.

    I love that there is a class of plants called “ephemerals.” Little fairy plants? A figment of our botanical imagination?

    Kathy — I am predisposed to like anyone who says “Life is good!!” Because, you know, life *is* good. I’m glad you’re still getting your hands dirty out there, and I hope you’ll weigh in here on other subjects, given the breadth of your experience. Thanks.

    Erica — That’s a tough dilemma. While sweet is good, tiny is not. (The same thing is happening with the lacinto kale we put in our hydroponic system.) Might be time for new seedlings. For both of us.

  18. I love these questions. I have no collard experience, but I’m interested now. We grow both kale and chard as biennials here in the Coast Range of Oregon, though sometimes a tough winter will kill off the chard.

    Brad K mentioned peppers as perennials, but tomatoes are also perennial– in their native climate. Many of the plants that we grow as annuals are actually just very cold sensitive perennials. Plants are so amazing.

  19. It’s been such a weird winter here in Illinois that the chard I had in pots lived through the winter and is showing signs of renewed growth. Quite frankly it’s freaking me out.

  20. My Dad has chard going on four years, and they aren’t bitter. I don’t know about collards, though, except that I know they are delicious.

    • The standard answer for collards is 3 or 4 years for seeds, but I found an old package (6 years) and planted them to see what came up for 2012; they grew just fine and are still peeping out of the ground–I just checked on them this morning, since the snow has all melted. I’m in Zone 5, FWIW. So go ahead and try sprouting a sample your collard seeds, and see what you get. They may still be viable.

  21. Hi,
    i had year old Swiss Chard and they grew massive stems just like the Collards in your photo. And of course once that root system has been developed you can harvest huge amounts of leaves and they grow back fast. I’d like to try this with Kale and Collards now in the future and treat them as perennials, give each plant about 2-3 ft by 2-3 ft of space in the garden and then just dump a few bags of cheap steer manure from Home Depot on the site every few months. Easier than growing a new crop from seed all the time. Also the lettuces can be harvested about an inch above the soil and they will regrow as well for a few months. I think i was able to get three crops per plant for romaine over the mild winter here in California. Believe they will bolt in the summer though.

  22. We had a record-breaking cold winter here in southern Missouri, with severak sub-zero nights and a lot of single digit days. Early 2013 spring, I planted collard greens and thinned them out to ten plants. They thrived and started producing in late spring and continued until late November, when the freezing nights finally did them in….or so I thought.
    Less than a month ago, I began noticing some green coming in on what was left of the dead looking trunks of the original ten plants. Within a week or so, I’ll make the first harvest on these amazing survivors.
    How did they make it ? In the very harshest periods of our winter, we always had a blanket of
    snow on the ground and I’m guessing it provided the needed insulation.

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