Is Ornamental Kale Edible?

When the weather starts to get cold, growing ornamental kale can be a great way to add a splash of color to your fall and winter garden.

A vertical close up image of deep purple, curly ornamental kale leaves. To the center and bottom of the image is green and white text.

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But you may be wondering whether or not it’s safe or enjoyable to eat. Let’s discuss!

What Is Ornamental Kale?

Ornamental Kale (Brassica oleracea var. acephala) is part of the Brassica family, along with cabbage, broccoli, brussels sprouts, and cauliflower.

Genetically, it’s the same as the culinary type that we love to eat. However, it’s been hybridized to look more like a flower with purple, pink, and/or white leaves.

A close up of the purple variety of Brassica oleracea, on a sunny day. Clearly showing the outer green leaves contrasting with the pink and purple inner leaves, that almost look like flowers.

Sometimes mislabeled as ornamental cabbage, you can tell the difference by looking at the leaves: kale is curly or ruffled, whereas cabbage has leaves that are broad and smooth.

Ornamental kale is liked by gardeners who want to add some color to their fall and winter gardens and containers, as it grows well in cooler weather. In fact, the colors become their most vibrant once night temperatures start dropping below 60°F. However, these colors will start to fade once nighttime temperatures start dropping to 20°F and colder.

In addition to providing a pretty addition to your garden, you may be wondering if there’s any potential nutritional benefit to these “ornamental” plants. Let’s take a look, shall we?

Is It Edible?

Apart from their looks, a key difference between this and the leafy greens you buy at the grocery store is that this variety isn’t grown for flavor.

Close up of a purple flowering variety of Brassica oleracea, with curly leaves, bright purple in the center, gradually giving way to purple and green on the outer leaves.

As a result, the ornamental stuff is much less flavorful than the “edible” culinary leafy greens. However, the leaves of these varieties are safe to eat. Just make sure to stay away from the roots, which are poisonous in any type of kale.

A Note of Caution

Ornamental kale plants purchased at a nursery may not have been grown organically, and there is a chance that they may have been sprayed with potentially toxic chemicals including pesticides or herbicides that are not food safe.

If you’re unsure if they’re safe to eat, it’s better to err on the side of caution and use these plants only for decorative purposes.

The main difference is that the leaves of the more decorative cool-season garden favorite are much more bitter than those of the varieties you’d typically grow for eating.

Still, if you’re interested in eating the more decorative plants from your garden, you can decrease some of the bitterness by boiling the leaves before adding them to recipes like casseroles or a stir-fry.

If bitterness isn’t your thing, but you don’t want those beautiful leaves to go to waste, you can use them as a garnish, or plate other foods on top for an impressive presentation.

Ornamental Kale Is Rich in Nutrients

In addition to being safe to eat, the leaves of this plant are also nutritious.

As is the case with ‘Lacinato,’ ‘Russian Red,’ curly-leafed, and other culinary varieties, the ornamental variety is also a good source of vitamins A, C, and K, as well as calcium and various antioxidants.

In fact, a study published in the journal BMC Genomics found that those bright splashes of pink and purple are due to compounds called anthocyanins.

Anthocyanins, also found in blueberries and purple carrots, are pigments with powerful antioxidant properties.

A review published in the journal Nutrients found that diets rich in anthocyanins are associated with a reduction in inflammation, obesity, and obesity-related chronic diseases.

More Than Just Pretty to Look At

Colorful and decorative, the ornamental variety is a beautiful addition to a fall or winter garden that also happens to be edible.

A close up, top down image of ornamental Brassica oleracea, some with vibrant purple leaves, with green edging, others with yellow and green patterns. The center of the plants looks more like a flower than a vegetable.

However, as it can be quite bitter, it’s not for everyone. If you do decide to eat it, make sure that it hasn’t been sprayed with any potentially toxic chemicals and rinse the leaves really well!

Do you eat yours? Have any tips? Let us know in the comments below.

Looking for more info on the benefits of eating homegrown leafy greens? Be sure to check out our article on the nutritional properties of raw kale.

Next up, don’t miss these growing guides:

© Ask the Experts, LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. See our TOS for more details. Uncredited photos: Shutterstock.

The staff at Gardener’s Path are not medical professionals and this article should not be construed as medical advice intended to assess, diagnose, prescribe, or promise cure. Gardener’s Path and Ask the Experts, LLC assume no liability for the use or misuse of the material presented above. Always consult with a medical professional before changing your diet or using plant-based remedies or supplements for health and wellness.

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Kelli McGrane is a Denver-based registered dietitian with a lifelong love of food. She holds a master’s degree in nutrition science from Boston University. As a registered dietitian, Kelli believes in the importance of getting to know our food better, including where it comes from and its benefits for our bodies.

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Eileen Sullivan
Eileen Sullivan (@guest_9723)
3 years ago

Great to know Cabbage Kale is edible. Can it be used in a smoothie without cooking first? (went to the grocery store for Kale but they had these plants on sale)

Tori Vallana, RD, LDN
Tori Vallana, RD, LDN(@torivallana)
Gardening Writer
Reply to  Eileen Sullivan
3 years ago

Hi Eileen! Ornamental kale that was organically grown is totally safe to eat raw or cooked, however it could be a little tough and bitter when raw. It might be a better option to cook it.
If you do decide to add it to a smoothie, you can make it a little sweeter and creamier by adding extra banana, yogurt, or some honey. Hope this helps!

Cheryl L. March
Cheryl L. March (@guest_12197)
3 years ago

I have what looks like Kale in my yard but what’s weird is I’ve never found Kale anywhere on the internet that looks like it. It was about 3 feet tall last year, the entire plant was dark purple and the leaves are curly. This year I chopped down the main stalk but little Kale leaves have come in

Allison Sidhu
Allison Sidhu(@allison-sidhu)
Reply to  Cheryl L. March
1 year ago

Apologies for our very delayed reply to this- can you share a photo?

Kate McInnes
Kate McInnes (@guest_23461)
1 year ago

Would eating the ornamental kale as microgreens improve the flavour?

Allison Sidhu
Allison Sidhu(@allison-sidhu)
Reply to  Kate McInnes
1 year ago

Sure, you could give microgreens a try! But most varieties of ornamental kale are typically sold as nursery plants rather than being grown at home from seed. If you’re going to the trouble of sprouting and sowing seeds, a tastier variety is what I’d recommend.