Before the caterpillars attacked: Red Russian kale seedlings
Jeanne turns her frustration with caterpillars in her garden into an exploration of the botany behind an extraordinary species: Brassica oleracea.
White cabbage butterflies (Lepidoptera: Pieris rapae) decimated the fall kale crop in our garden. To be fair, the abundant green caterpillars did not consume the entire blade of every leaf. The remaining nibbled leaves, however, in my husband’s view, no longer resembled food so much as a caterpillar farm that would be tedious to turn into food. He ripped out the caterpillar farm, threw it on the compost bin, and replaced it with lettuce. Unlike kale, which is in the mustard family (Brassicaceae), lettuce is in the sunflower family (Asteraceae) and is therefore not even remotely attractive to white cabbage butterflies.
Caterpillar damage on young green curly kale in the garden at Monticello
I was tempted to save the hole-riddled leaves from their compost fate, in part because I know that the munching of the caterpillars actually increased the foliar concentration of some of the compounds that contribute to kale’s nutritious reputation, and also because plummeting autumn temperatures impart an extraordinary sweetness to kale and the other cruciferous vegetables that are all actually varieties of the same species, Brassica oleracea: cauliflower, cabbage, kohlrabi, Brussels sprouts, Chinese broccoli, and collard greens. The details of the chemical consequences of caterpillar consumption will soon get a post all their own. This post is dedicated to the botany and evolutionary biology behind the amazing diversity of B. oleracea. Continue reading