Sandy’s Garden ... Van ity and Sea Kale

Sandy Simpson
Sandy Simpson

“Whatever talents I possess may suddenly diminish or suddenly increase.”

“I can with ease become an ordinary fool. I may be one now. But it doesn’t do to upset one’s own vanity.”

So wrote the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas in a letter to Trevor Hughes in February 1932. What a wonderful way with words that man had to write that in a letter … not in a carefully constructed, revised, edited and long-considered poem, but in a letter to a friend! Alas, by Dylan Thomas’s standards I am several leagues below being considered an ordinary fool. But I can and do admit to sharing some element of vanity, an attribute which led to me expressing my continuing concern for thinning hair to Danni, the senior stylist who cares for my ageing locks but who, alas, can do little to return them to their one-time luxuriant plenteousness. “Try sea kale,” she advised me. “That’s supposed to make your hair grow and go curly.”

Now I am familiar with kale, a brassica which is grown as a winter vegetable, like cauliflower, cabbage and brussels sprouts. Kale has many virtues; it is extremely frost-resistant and thrives in almost any type of soil in the harshest winter weather conditions we are likely to experience in Scotland; it is disease-resistant; it doesn’t even want the ground into which the seedlings are to be planted in the summer months to be well dug beforehand. So why is it not much more popular? Well, it usually has a bitter taste, largely because the leaves are not normally harvested for the kitchen before they have grown to a decent size; pluck the leaves when they are young and tender and kale is an excellent winter green, fit to grace any dinner table. But what is sea kale? Where does it grow? And is it a maritime version of the kale I could grow in my garden?

Let’s have recourse to the Royal Horticultural Society to find the answers to these questions. “The genus Crambe,” I learn, “are robust annuals and perennials with large, simple or divided leaves and racemes or large panicles of small, fragrant white flowers.” They are members of the Brassica family. And the species Crambe maritima … commonly known as sea kale, sea cabbage, sea colewort or seakale … is “a robust herbaceous perennial to 75cm, forming a clump of large, lobed, wavy-edged blue-green leaves, with dense racemes of small white flowers in early summer.” Well, that tells me what it is and where it grows, for the maritima element of the botanical name Crambe maritima means ‘growing near the sea’ while the genetic name Crambe comes from the Greek name for ‘cabbage’ because of the similarity between its leaves and those of the cabbage. So it’s a cabbage-like plant which grows near the sea, not actually in or under the water. But can I eat it? And will it do anything to make my hair grow curly?

Sea kale used to be cultivated as a vegetable grown in rich, deep, sandy soil like the loose shingle in which it grows wild along the coast of England and elsewhere. But unlike what I might call ‘terrestrial kale’, it is not the leaves that are eaten, but the shoots which spring from the root crowns. These used to be served like asparagus … steamed, with either a béchamel sauce or melted butter, salt and pepper. But sea kale is seldom found on the menu today, although the plant is sometimes grown as an ornamental garden plant and has been awarded the Royal Horticultural Society’s Award of Garden Merit. And sea kale is a good source of iodine, an essential mineral to let the thyroid gland produce a number of the hormones which keep our bodily systems in balance, boosting our metabolisms and so avoiding excess weight gain, fatigue, and organ system malfunctions. But I haven’t found any clear claim that sea kale will curl my hair, although my vanity may tempt me to give it whirl!