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Make walking sticks - from cabbage!

It's not clear where these most unusual plants originated. There is mention of them growing in France as early as the mid-1700s, and perhaps they were grown even earlier in Scotland. Most of the records I have found refer to them being planted on a commercial scale on the Channel Islands off the coast of England in the mid-1800s.

Their botanical name is Brassica oleracea longata, but they go by dozens of names such as great cow cabbage, long jacks, tree cabbage and others.

When the stalks are dry they nearly equal bamboo on a strength-to-weight ratio. The plant is leguminous, and is used for food, fodder, fuel and budding material. The plants will grow in almost any soil, they survive severe winters, and under ideal conditions can grow to 20 feet tall.

Cow cabbage supposedly doesn't cause flatulence or heartburn, and milking cows that eagerly eat the leaves greatly increase their milk production. It is said that 60 plants will produce enough food for one cow over a period of three years.

Under proper conditions, it takes three years for cow cabbage to produce seed. Here in California's hot weather mine went to seed in only two years. They did grow quite tall however, with the largest reaching 13 feet. Since I had planted them next to my front sidewalk they were quite a novelty. Most people thought they were Brussels sprouts.

I planted my seeds in paper cups in October, and when they were about 4" tall I transplanted them to one-gallon pots. In December I set them out, still in the pots, with the intention of planting them soon. That was the winter of 90-91, when we got the coldest weather ever recorded in our area. It dropped to 13'two nights in a row, and water pipes were bursting all overtown. Yes, I know, for some of you 13 [degrees] is only chilly. But my cow cabbage had frozen solid, including the root ball, and I thought they were done for. I set them against the south side of the house and hoped for the best.

When the weather warmed the plants thawed and, much to my surprise and delight, began to grow. I set them in the ground when they were 6-8 inches tall. After that I did little more than water them.

To get good straight stalks 'of the proper diameter for walking sticks you must strip off the lower leaves at regular intervals. If you get much wind, stake them. The plants are shallow-rooted, like corn, and are easily blown over. Purposely bending the young plants over and then later staking them straight will cause a natural crook in the stalk. This crook then becomes the handle to the walking stick. This type of stick is much prized in England, and fetches a better price than straight sticks.

If the leaves are left on too long the stalk becomes too thick for a proper walking stick and it will often branch out, trying to form limbs. Ideally, you need to remove the lower leaves when the stalk is slightly larger than walking stick size--about 1-1/4 to 1-1/2 inches in diameter. You can expect about 20 pecent shrinkage when dry. I think a diameter of about an inch is ideal for a walking stick, but if you're growing cow cabbage for bean poles or roof rafters you will want them much heavier.

Leaves are removed with a sharp downward pull. However, if a leaf is not yellow and ready to come off it Will not pull away cleanly. I have used a knife in these cases, leaving a stub which will fall away later. The best walking sticks have these natural leaf scars, as opposed to a cut or tom leaf socket.

I let my plants go to seed and then uproot them, cutting off the root ball and top. I then drill a hole in one end and hang each stalk on a nail driven into the roof rafters in my barn. It takes six months or so for them to dry completely, but this will vary with weather conditions.

The stalks have small hollow spots, although not nearly as much as bamboo. When making walking sticks you need to avoid these hollow areas to get a good solid joint for the handle.

To prepare the stalk, first determine which section you want for the stick. One stalk will often make two walking sticks. Cut them to length.

If I am adding a tee handle I sand down the handle end on my disk sander. You could also carve this with a knife. What you want is a round end with as large a diameter as possible, perhaps one inch long, with a slight taper. This diameter needs to be of a size to fit tightly into a hole drilled crosswise halfway through the handle. I use a forstner bit of 3/4" to 1-1/4" diameter in a drill press. With care, you could use a hand drill.

It is important to have a good tight handle, and to this end I use Tightbond II, a one-part waterproof glue available at most building supply stores. Since there is a slight taper on the stick and the hole is cylindrical you need to bed the shaft into the handle. To do this mix sawdust with the glue to the consistency of toothpaste. Then wet the shaft and hole with plain glue, put the sawdust and glue mixture into the hole, and drive the handle on with a mallet. Ideally you want enough mix in the hole so that when the handle seats on its shoulder a small amount of the mix squeezes out. Wipe this off with a damp cloth. Set your new walking stick aside to dry for at least 24 hours.

To finish it, I sand it lightly to remove any sharp points, then flow on a coat or two of polyurethane varnish. The brand I use is Flecto Varathane liquid plastic. Brushing it on is OK for one or two sticks, but dipping into a long tube, such as a broken fluorescent light tube, is much faster for mass production.

If I don't have a natural crook for a handle I use a 4-6" length of fruitwood perhaps 2" or more in diameter. I leave the bark on to give the stick a rustic appearance and often put a rubber crutch tip on the end. You can add a metal ferrule on the tip made from a short piece of polished copper pipe. The English sticks almost always have a metal knob for a handle, sometimes made of sterling silver. But then their sticks sell for hundreds of dollars.

I have grown 30-40 cow cabbage plants over the years, and making walking sticks is a great pastime for those rainy days. Other than stick making I have used them for pole bean supports. I haven't tried them as food, fuel or fodder, but I suspect the leaves taste much like normal cabbage. If it's true that they can eliminate flatulence and stomach gas, perhaps they're worth growing just for this. It would be interesting to know if the leaves would also increase goat milk production.

Nothing much bothers these plants except aphids. A bad infestation can be devastating to the head. However, a strong water blast, soap or malathion will fix the problem.

Plantings on two-foot centers is normal, and growing requirements differ little from normal cabbage.

Seeds are available from Thompson & Morgan, P. O. Box 1308, Jackson NJ08527-308. The seed comes with information on growing and the making of the sticks.

For more information see the small book, The Giant Cabbage of the Channel Islands, by Dr. Southcombe Parker, published by the Toucan Press in 1970. It's available from the Oklahoma State University Library. I had my local library transfer this book at a minimal cost.
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Title Annotation:cow cabbage
Author:Calvert, Robert L.
Publication:Countryside & Small Stock Journal
Date:Jul 1, 1993
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