Collards – a Southern Tradition

— Written By Shannon Newton
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Every New Year’s Day in the South, many families eat collard greens and black-eyed peas for lunch or as we say in the south, dinner. According to legendary Southern food researcher John Egerton’s Southern Food: At Home, On the Road, In History, black-eyed peas are associated with a “mystical power to bring good luck.” As for collard greens, they’re green like money and will ensure you a financially prosperous new year. What a great way to start off the New Year.

Collard greens are a broad-leafed vegetable of the Brassica oleracea species, which also includes broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, and kale. Researchers at Texas A&M and The George Mateljan Foundation write that like most Brassica vegetables, collard greens probably descended from wild cabbages found in Asia before recorded history. They eventually spread through Europe, and the Greeks and Romans grew kale and collards in domestic gardens over 2,000 years ago. Collard greens traveled to the Americas by ship and have become a staple of the south.

Collard greens are dense with vitamins and nutrients. The dark, leafy greens contain high amounts of vitamins A, C, and K, calcium, folate, and fiber. Collards are rich in the antioxidant beta-carotene which helps cells defend themselves against the damage caused by free radicals. According to the National Cancer Institute, beta-carotene may play an important role in warding off certain cancers.

It’s important to remember, however, that improperly or overcooking collards – as with other nutrient-rich vegetables – can leach the vitamins and minerals from the leaf. Reducing the cooking time or simmering the greens rather than boiling can help preserve both the nutritional value and taste of these greens. At my home, we wash our collards to remove dirt and debris, cut out the stem and julienne the leaves. We cook our collards with olive oil, garlic and a little bit of water. Of course, we serve it with pepper relish! Cooking collards is fun, easy, and nutritious. For more recipes and information on cooking collards, see the NC State Extension Collard Greens publication.

Want to grow collards next year in your garden? There are two different types of collards you can grow.

Image of morris heading collards

Morris Heading collard is an heirloom variety that was developed by Morris Plant Farm in Scotland County, North Carolina. According to Bonnie Plants, “Morris Heading is an old Southern favorite with great flavor and nutrition. Grows best in full sun, but will tolerate partial shade. Leaves are made sweeter by frost.“ Typically the entire plant is harvested. You can also harvest the lower leaves first.

Image of vates collards

Vates collards were developed at the Virginia Truck Farm Experiment station. Over the years, many different varieties of the Vates style collards have been released and are available to grow in your home vegetable garden. All Vates style collards, grow with a central stem and are harvested differently than Morris Heading collard. Harvest leaves from the bottom and up the stalk. As the plant grows and harvest continues, the plant begins to resemble a tree. For complete information on growing collards, see the NC State Extension Collards publication.

Whether you eat them for luck on New Year’s Day, for their taste, or for the abundant nutritional benefits, collard greens can be grown in Eastern North Carolina and are an excellent addition to any balanced diet.