Plant Profile- Spigarello (Leaf Broccoli)

Sometimes when you have just about given up on finding true love the next day that special someone wanders into your life unexpectedly and things will never be the same again. Or in this case rather than special someone, that special plant.

I had grown various kinds of kale in my older more intensive gardens for many years from seed I bought from various sources further south in temperate Australia. I quite liked the taste mixed into other dishes but was especially impressed by some varieties ability to last several years. Cavalo nero or Tuscan kale was especially good at this, and the thick wrinkled leaves held up long into the hot, dry seasons. Its longevity meant that it survived summers and burst into tender growth as soon as the cool rains of autumn arrived. But there was a problem.

I wanted to have kids but Tuscan kale was not interested.  So I waited patiently, hoping they would change their mind with a little time. My kale gradually grew older and weaker, one year one plant even produced a spindly flower stalk in the roasting heat of summer that promptly withered away. I knew it wasn’t going to work out. Would I ever find a kale to call my own? Would I be stuck buying seeds from far away forever (or at least until the seed companies stopped offering them). I had a dalliance with collard greens on the side but even they weren’t interested in flowering despite their supposed subtropical origins.

Then I noticed an odd listing in the gardener’s personal ads (some random seed catalogue). Leaf broccoli: upright plants with kale like leaves, tastes like broccoli. I added them to the order expecting it to be just another waste of time. They grew like Tuscan kale and I was pleasantly surprised to find that they did indeed taste like broccoli, not that cabbagey funk of kale. I didn’t dare hope that this would be the one, so I just waited patiently. I didn’t have to wait long because they flowered quite convincingly at the end of their first spring. The seed set was quite spotty but I had enough seed to start a new generation next year. Better yet the plants didn’t die off after flowering, recovering after a light prune to produce excellent leaves in late summer. This is very valuable to me since it means I get good quality greens very early in the season when all the recently sowed annuals are still many weeks away from any harvesting. This dynamic is kind of the mirror image of people in cold climates treasuring early spring perennial crops like asparagus that produce when not much else is available yet.

I should point out why this is the only Brassica oleracea I grow any more. This species includes kale, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussel sprouts and kohl rabi, such is the plasticity of the original wild species that it has been moulded into every imaginable form. The original species is closest to kale, with each subsequent transformation relying on severe inbreeding that results in weaker root systems and greater difficulty in maintaining the remaining vigour when saving seed. The reason why all these variations exist is to meet the needs of storage and transport, just like the cardboard tomatoes of today. Cabbages are designed to store for months on a shelf in cold climates where outdoor vegetables freeze solid. Broccoli and cauliflower are designed to withstand transportation in an ox cart to city markets, while kale will often go limp by the time you get it to the kitchen. Only with the invention of refrigerated transport trucks did kale come back on the menu for city dwellers. On my creek flats where the topsoil is deeper I had grown quite convincing cabbages and cauliflowers and I grew decent broccoli in my intensive gardens. Once was enough to convince me they were a waste of time. All these crops demand much more inputs and better conditions than the kale like forms. In a climate where we can grow fresh greens year round cabbage makes no sense. And for home growers the transportation advantages of broccoli make no sense either. In addition the condensed heads make risky targets for pest issues. One caterpillar outbreak close to harvest time renders the crop mostly destroyed, while kale will simply regrow new leaves later and can be left alone until predators catch up. The demand for heads of cabbage or broccoli to be picked on their schedule also bothered me. Finding you are two days too late and everything has run to inedible flowers is annoying after investing so much in the crop. I can harvest kale types whenever it suits me without penalty. Finally all the different forms of Brassica oleracea can hybridise and make weird mutants, so only growing one form makes life a lot simpler.

I have since combined three different sources for spigarello in order to get a little more genetic range, with plants varying in the degree of ruffling in their leaves. This is the first big crop I have grown, with about 30 plants. They were grown as seedlings started in small pots (tubes) since the amount of seed I had was too low to risk direct sowing. The plants also are a little slow to get started, meaning they are vulnerable to pests taking them out a bit longer than other crops. They were sowed in January, ready for transplanting out in March. They gave good harvests by around May, but other faster growing crops with shorter harvest seasons like Ethiopian kale make more sense to rely on at that time. Now about half the plants are flowering heavily with a few making heavy seed set, so next season I will try direct sowing (with a set of tubes as a back up for any gaps). I am still harvesting thick blue leaves from the plants not yet in flower, just a few filled out yet young ones per plant at a time, to keep them growing and strong for flowering later. Their strength will also be reserved for that crucial late summer/early autumn harvest.

It is a fine line to walk between knowing when to give up on a hopeless cause versus keeping your mind open to possibilities you may not have even imagined yet. As my zero input farm progresses I feel like I am getting better at striking a balance between a bulk of tried and true favourites combined with a sprinkling of new experiments. Most of these end in disappointment but that just leaves room to try a couple of new things next year instead. Spigarello is now a firm favourite and I hope I can convince other subtropical gardeners to give it a try.

A spigarello in full flower with heavy pod set
Two leafy spigarello still contributing to regular meals

7 thoughts on “Plant Profile- Spigarello (Leaf Broccoli)

  1. Haven’t heard of this one. I’ve tried most kale varieties including many of the hybrids. They set seed, but of course, never come true. Just ordered some spigariello seed to try. I have reasonable success with Cavallo Nero kale but the chooks love it so they get most of it. It sets seed pretty well down here. Thanks for the heads up.


  2. I’ve been wanting to tell you about my efforts with spigariello after reading this post. As I said in my first comment I got seeds from The Lost Seed and sowed and potted up a dozen plants. These were planted in 25 cm deep wicking boxes, 4 to a box. The 3 boxes were in a line with other 17 other boxes, the greatest separation being 2 metres between spigariello boxes. They all grew well, but much taller than I anticipated and I didn’t protect them with mozzie netting like I do with other brassicas. As a result the cabbage whites had a ball, but only with plants in 2 of the boxes. They didn’t touch the 3rd box. I watched them hover over the plants and even land but no eggs were ever laid. Each day I picked the grubs off the other 8 plants and gave them to the chooks. Eventually I ran out of other greens for the chooks and the 8 plants were uprooted and went to the chooks. I kept the 4 plants that had no caterpillar attack and they’re still there, growing slowly and I’m hoping they’ll flower and set seed this spring. But here’s the interesting thing. The 8 plants that got attacked had different leaves to the ones that didn’t. The ones that didn’t get attacked were like the ones in your photos…..very wavy edges. The others had flat leaves with straight edges. Now I’m wondering why they were different. It’s just too much to suppose that the original seeds were variable and that I just happened to get 4 of the same wavy edge type in the one box. I’m wondering about the compost in all the boxes and possible mineral differences that could be related to leaf shape. I usually make my compost in a tumbler using the floor sweepings from the chook coop (straw + poo) and add a bit of dynamic lifter and blood and bone so I can’t really explain it that way. Any ideas? Have all your plants had the same wavy edge leaves? Anyway I’m hoping for seed which I’ll sow next season along with some of the original seed and see what happens. The most important thing is the resistance to cabbage whites. That would be a huge bonus.


  3. Interesting observations and I agree it is unlikely variable seed randomly assorted into different beds. I find brassicas are easy to overfertilise, and when they get too much nitrogen that is when the caterpillars turn up. I suspect the bed that didnt get attacked had a better nutrient balance. I often get caterpillars on my brassica plants in autumn when the manure is still pretty hot, and the weather warm. Once things cool down the plants tend to outgrow the caterpillars. Plants that I leave for their second and third year without extra manure are also more resistant to being attacked.


  4. We eat the broccoli the more you pick the more it makes. Could you tell me how long the plant lives, please it’s about nine month old . Thank you heaps. Irma


    1. I don’t grow heading brassicas any more. Probably in cooler climates the heads mature more slowly- here in the subtropics even in winter they bolt so quickly (and suffer irreversible pest damage too often) to bother. Even spigarello has dropped off my grow list, in favor for Ethiopian kale (which tastes better and is vastly more productive here). All broccoli are descended from wild kales that are short lived perennials (generally losing vigor after their third year). Most broccoli strains are only bred to be annual but under ideal conditions could continue for longer, though vigor would probably decline after the first season.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: