In its wild state the cabbage is found on the sea cliffs of western and southern Europe and on the coasts of the English Channel. It has been known from earliest antiquity and was probably in general use previous to the Aryan invasions, 2,000 to 2,500 b. c. Several types were cultivated in the time of Pliny. De Candolle and most authors of English floras admit the plant to be indigenous to Europe. No doubt it was used in the wild state before there were cultivated forms.
The wild cabbage plant is herbaceous, usually perennial and sometimes biennial, attaining a height of 2 to 3 feet. The root is tough and woody; the leaves are stalked, lyrate or pinnatifid, entire, broad, undulated, thick, smooth, covered with a glaucous bloom. The stem bears at the top a spike of yellow, rarely white flowers.
There is great variation among cultivated types, particularly of the leaves. The outer leaves may be large or small; few or many; flat or curved; curved inward or curved outward; inclosing the head closely or loosely; long or short; broad or narrow; thick or thin; base well filled out or spatulate; veins few or many, fine or coarse; margin entire or cre-nate; surface flat or undulate, smooth or crumpled; shape uniform or variable; savoyed little or much, finely or coarsely; color light green, dark green, red or tinged with purple; border sometimes tinged with purple; color uniform or variable; bloom much or little, bright or dull.
The heads may be large or small; flat, flattened, globular or elongated; pointed acutely or obtusely; horizontal section round or angular; soft to very hard. The head leaves may reach or pass beyond the center; drawn or folded tightly or loosely; thick or thin; crisp or tough; well blanched or poorly blanched; sweet or bitter; flavor good or poor. Core large or small; long or short.
The various methods of classification suggested are unsatisfactory. Market gardeners often speak of varieties as being early, midseason and late. This system of grouping, however, means little, for the time of maturity is largely a matter of how early the crop is started. Jersey Wakefield is generally recognized as an early variety, but some home growers desiring pointed heads and high quality sow the seed in July and August, so that the heads will not mature until October or November, and then the product becomes late cabbage. Succession is usually regarded as a midseason variety, but by tarting it early under glass marketable heads may be secured in the North soon after July 1, while later sowings will not make solid cabbage until freezing weather. A system of grouping suggested by C. L. Allen is the most valuable. ("Cabbage, Cauliflower and Allied Vegetables," p. 54.) The names of certain well-known and usually old varieties are used to indicate the groups, as (1) Wakefield and Winningstadt Group, (2) Flat Dutch or Drumhead Group, (3) Savoy Group, (4) Red Cabbage Group, (5) Danish Ballhead Group, (6) Alpha Group. (7) The Volga group, which is not included in the Allen grouping, is here added.
Jersey Wakefield is an old English variety introduced on Long Island about 50 years ago. In 1886, Peter Henderson wrote, "It is universally considered the best early cabbage in cultivation." C. L. Allen, writing probably 15 years later, stated, "It has no superior." Practically all of the old writers praise this variety, and market gardeners today can find nothing better as a first early cabbage. Judging from descriptions and illustrations in the old books, the type of head as originally grown in England and in this country was more blunt or obtuse at the apex than the average strain now sold by seedsmen. It seems that in the attempt to secure earliness the seed growers have encouraged the conical form, which is now typical of the best strains. Solidity of head, earliness, superior quality and scant outside foliage are the chief merits of this variety. The heads also average larger in size than some other early varieties cultivated less extensively. It is popular among home gardeners, and is unquestionably the leading early variety grown by American market gardeners (Figure 66). Many strains or subvarieties have been introduced under new names. Early Race Horse and Wood's Extra Early are examples of superior strains tested at the Pennsylvania station.
Charleston Wakefield is supposed to be a strain of the Jersey Wakefield, producing heads a third larger and requiring from three days to a week longer to mature. The heads are not so pointed and the outside leaves are larger. The edible and shipping qualities are good. It is considered the most valuable variety to follow Jersey Wakefield when a pointed cabbage is wanted.
Winningstadt heads are much more pointed than those of Jersey Wakefield, but about the same size, although those grown at the Pennsylvania station are considerably smaller. Because of solidity of heads, tenderness and fine quality, this variety is a general favorite among home gardeners. It lacks shipping qualities, and is seldom planted for commercial purposes, except in a limited way to supply a special trade.
Early York is of interest historically. It is one of the best-known varieties, is very largely cultivated in England and was a general favorite in this country before the introduction of Jersey Wakefield. The heads differ from the Wakefield type in being oval or reversed-cone shape, oblong, about twice as long as broad, much smaller than Wakefield and not quite so compact. The variety is now seldom planted in this country.
Express. Although this variety has been widely cataloged by seedsmen for many years, it seems to be a carefully bred strain of Jersey Wakefield. There is no question about its being earlier than the average strain of Jersey Wakefield, but the differences in leaf and head are not sufficient to make it a distinct new variety. It is apparently the same as Early Race Horse and Wood's Extra Early.