Ask the Hort Agent: Collards

  • Posted: Friday, October 11, 2013 3:53 p.m.
    UPDATED: Friday, October 11, 2013 4:05 p.m.

Question: Are collards sweeter after a frost?

Answer: Collards are one of the most primitive members of the cabbage group. The word “collard” is a corruption of "coleworts" or "colewyrts," which are Anglo-Saxon terms meaning "cabbage plants."

These non-heading cabbages originated in the eastern part of the Mediterranean. They were the wild forms of cabbage first used for food in prehistoric times. Cultivated by ancient Greeks and Romans, they were introduced to Britain and France by either the Romans or Celts. They reached the British Isles in 400 B.C. The first mention of collards in America was in 1669, but they may have existed here much earlier.

Collards (also known as tree cabbage) are cool-season vegetable greens. They grow better in warm weather and can tolerate more cold weather in the late fall than any other member of the cabbage family.

Collards require 6-8 weeks after planting before they are ready for harvest. There are two common ways to harvest collards. Leaves can be "cropped" from the bottom (like flue cured tobacco). With this method, the plant is able to continue growing new leaves. This method is also predominantly used by home gardeners. The other method is primarily used when buying collards. The leaves are harvested by making one cut and removing the entire plant (like burley tobacco). Unfortunately, collards don't smell as good cooking as tobacco smells curing.

Freshly harvested leaves should be cooled immediately to 34-40F. Like other greens such as turnips and mustards, collard leaves are cut into thin pieces and then pot-boiled along with meat or other seasoning until tender.

Collard leaves taste sweeter after a frost, because they protect their leaf tissues from freezing by converting some stored starch into soluble sugars. The presence of the dissolved sugar lowers the temperature at which the plant sap will freeze by several degrees. People generally prefer the flavor of greens with the increased sugar content. Mmm, mmm sweet collars!

The best tasting collards are those planted in the fall and harvested during light frost periods of early winter. The plant can withstand exposure to temperatures as low as 15F, unless such a freeze abruptly follows a warm period of growth.

For info on growing collards, visit If you need a taste tester, contact me at 910-893-7530 or

The trick to cooking collards happens after they are boiled. Remove them from the water. Cut them up some, then fry them in butter, chicken or bacon grease for about 4 to 5 minutes. Trust me. You will love collards from now on!

Gary Pierce, Horticulture Agent
Harnett County Cooperative Extension 910-893-7530

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