How many kinds of greens are there, anyway?

The National Garden Bureau has named 2009 the Year of Greens.

Photo courtesy of The National Garden Bureau
Colorful: Greens aren't always green. This is Red Mustard.

Greens are a diverse group of plants that are grown and eaten primarily for their edible leaves. Not always green in color, leafy greens can be red or purple, flecked, speckled or multicolored.

Mesclun is a term given to mixes that contain a variety of leafy greens. (See the National Garden Bureau's Fact Sheet on Mesclun.)

Greens can be harvested at many different stages of growth. As a "micro-green," plants are harvested as young seedlings with only one or two true leaves, usually within 10 to 14 days of planting the seeds.

They are delicious in salads and sandwiches, and often used as an edible garnish. Allowing plants to grow a couple more weeks, they can be harvested for use as "baby greens."

Small but full of flavor, the tender, bite-sized leaves are an essential element of gourmet menus. Of course, greens can be allowed to grow to full size before being harvested.

Classification and varieties
Many of the greens grown today are Brassicas from the Brassicaceae (also called Cruciferae) or cabbage family.

This family of economically important plants includes broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower and gives us a wide variety of greens including arugula, mizuna, tatsoi, cress, collards, and mustard greens.

Most greens are annuals, though sorrel and cress are perennials that can be grown as annuals.

Arugula (Eruca sativa) – also called roquette, rocket salad, or rocket, is easy to grow with green leaves that are lobed and add a spicy snap to salads. A popular green in Europe, it is used in many Italian and French dishes.

When young, the leaves have a mild, radish-type zip that is sometimes compared to the flavor of horseradish. Many people like to combine arugula with other milder greens to balance the stronger flavor. Arugula is ready to harvest in four to six weeks.

Asian greens such as mizuna (Brassica rapa japonica) and tatsoi (Brassica rapa rosularis) are making a splash in American gourmet cuisine.

Mizuna has white stems and delicate green leaves with finely cut fringed edges. Fast growing and delicious, mizuna is ready to eat in 20 to 40 days. It is tolerant of most weather even growing in hot temperatures without bolting.

Tatsoi, also called spoon cabbage or rosette pak choi, has very dark green leaves, appearing almost black in color, with a mild peppery flavor.

It's very weather-tolerant and continues to grow through cold temperatures and light snow. It also tolerates heat so you can make several plantings from spring through fall.

Tatsoi is delicious as a baby green and it grows quickly into mature plants that are ready to harvest in five to seven weeks.

Cress, also called garden cress or pepper grass (Lepidium sativum) is a fast-growing green harvested as a sprout within a week or so after germination. It has a tangy, pepperlike flavor and aroma.

'Wrinkled Crinkled Crumpled' cress is aptly named. It is a fast growing, large leafed cress with extremely curly leaves that takes a little longer to mature and is ready in about 14 to 21 days.

Garden cress is different from watercress (Nasturtium officinale), a perennial that grows in running water or very damp areas. However, 'Presto' is a popular cress variety with a flavor similar to watercress.

Land cress (Barbarea verna) is a related perennial cress that is known by many different names including American cress, early wintercress, early yellowrocket, and, in the South, creasy greens.

Unlike garden cress, it is eaten about seven weeks after sowing, when plants have developed six-inch diameter rosettes of glossy, dark green leaves. It is similar to watercress but is easier to grow in the garden.

Collards (Brassica oleracea, Acephala group) are a type of nonheading cabbage with large, blue-green, coarse leaves with a distinct cabbagelike flavor.

Each plant produces many leaves and can be harvested as a micro-green, baby green, or when fully mature.

Collards grow well in the heat -- making them a favorite of Southern gardeners -- yet they're extremely hardy and tolerate temperatures down to 15 degrees F., so even Northern gardeners will get a harvest. Exposure to frosts sweetens the flavor of the leaves. 'Georgia' is a popular variety in the South because of its heat tolerance.

Plants mature in 70 to 80 days and reach 24 to 30 inches tall. 'Vates' is a low-growing, compact variety with thick, broad leaves that mature in 75 days and also overwinters well.

'Champion,' a selection of Vates, is even more compact with the same rich, dark green leaves, yet ready to harvest two weeks earlier.

Mustard greens (Brassica juncea) are a cool-season vegetable that produces large leaves that get a foot or more tall. They withstand some frost but may bolt when day lengths get longer in the spring.

You can begin harvesting the outer leaves from mustards when they are only three to four inches tall.

'Southern Giant Curled' is a longtime favorite and a 1935 Gold Medal All-America Selections winner. Slow to bolt, the upright bright green leaves have curly edges. It can be harvested in 35 to 50 days.

If you want color, choose the beautiful 'Red Giant.' True to its name, the large leaves are up to 18 inches tall with a beautiful reddish bronze color and reddish purple veins. It's ready to harvest for baby greens in about three weeks and reaches full size in 35 to 45 days. The leaves have the tangy flavor of gourmet mustard.

'Ruby Streaks' is stunning and delicious. The attractive and sweet leaves are finely serrated when young, then look more like mizuna when mature. Leaf color varies from dark green with red veins to dark maroon. It is ready to harvest in three to six weeks and makes a beautiful addition to containers, flower borders or the vegetable garden.

NOTE: Part 1 of this series from the National Garden Bureau on edible greens can be found here. The next article is on lettuce. The final article explains how to grow greens, and will be published on Tuesday.

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