By Joseph Zaleski

If you’re from the Southern United States, you’ve probably been served collard greens at some point in your life. Collards are so synonymous with Southern cuisine that legislators in South Carolina voted in 2011 to make it their official state vegetable, and collard green festivals are held annually in cities like Atlanta and Savannah. But this vegetable’s history and range extend far beyond North America.

Collard greens are grown and eaten in many places around the world. (Photo credit: Andrew Scrivani, The New York Times)

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 the staple noted above.

Collard greens are grown and eaten regularly in many countries across the world. In Brazil, the side dish couve a mineira is prepared by sautéing collard greens in olive oil and butter; in the Kashmiri region of India, haak, or hakh,  is a collard dish that can be incorporated into a traditional and elaborate multi-course course feast called a wazwan; Portuguese families use collards or kale in a soup known as caldo verde, or “green broth.”

Collard greens are a cool season vegetable that can be harvested into early winter. Collards are also more resistant to frost than any other cabbage variety, which make them an attractive vegetable in temperate regions of the world that experience mild winters. Collards are easily domesticated, growing in backyard or home gardens.

Collard greens are also known to pack a nutritional punch. 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 professional and amateur gourmets alike preserve both the nutritional value and bold taste of these greens.

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 around the world and are an excellent addition to any balanced diet.

Have you ever eaten collard greens for good luck? What other countries have incorporated collards into their cuisine?

Joseph Zaleski is a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet project.

To read more about indigenous vegetables, see: Star Apple: Prized Fruit and Timber, Shalakh Apricot: Protecting a Species’ Diversity, and a Local Culture, and African rock fig: A fruit with historical significance and potential for the future.

To purchase State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet please click HERE. And to watch the one minute book trailer, click HERE.

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