By Denise Levine, UC Master Gardener of Napa County
Purple plants do well in my garden. Animals seem to leave them alone, and birds that seem to know which little green things are weeds and which are my seedlings hop by my baby purple plants without assaulting them. Insects also tend to ignore my purple plants in favor of their green-leaved neighbors.
Purple plants owe their remarkable qualities to a flavonoid pigment called anthocyanin. Found in blueberries and other dark red and purple foods, anthocyanins have been deemed by nutritionists to be healthful. These pigments also protect plants from extreme temperatures, plant viruses, fungus and animal attacks.
But even putting those benefits aside, I find purple plants beautiful. My winter purple cauliflowers—the variety is Di Sicilia Violetto (Purple of Sicily)—are deeply colored, with velvety heads that delight me each time I tend them.
As beautiful as they are and as much as I enjoy watching them grow, I also visualize gorgeous purple florets for vegetable dips on Christmas Day. I also plan to steam a whole cauliflower to serve with Cheddar sauce. The cauliflower's color will change when cooked but with no loss of the extraordinary phytonutrients.
Nearby in my garden are the aptly named Tête Noir (Black Head) cabbages. Deeply and beautifully pigmented, these traditional French cabbages are delicious when stuffed, pickled for sauerkraut, or shredded and simmered with honey and lemon for sweet and sour cabbage. I love growing this variety through every season, but especially in winter.
Many Asian greens are easy to sow and grow quickly through the cold months in Napa County. Bok choy, mustards and mizunas all do well. They are abundant producers and wonderful sources of greens for cooking. Here, too, there are purple options.
If a stroll through your favorite nursery doesn't yield the seedlings you are looking for, Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds offers Japanese Giant red mustard, Beni Houshi mizuna and Purple Lady bok choy among other purple options.
Beni Houshi mizuna is a new offering with mild, tender, lime-green leaves atop succulent, bright purple stems. These stems have the same protective phytonutrients found in blueberries.
The greens can be shredded for salad or used as a substitute for spinach or other greens.
Japanese Giant red mustard hits the other end of the flavor spectrum. Its strong-tasting purplish leaves have an almost garlicky flavor that perks up winter stir-fries and steamed vegetable plates.
Purple Lady bok choy is a striking plant with strong purple leaves and bright green stems. It is uniformly sized, growing six to seven inches tall. Described as “crunchy, juicy and flavorful,” this bok choy can be grilled, stir-fried or used in salads.
Carrots are another edible you can grow through the winter months. Purple varieties pack an even bigger nutritional punch than the already nutrient-dense orange type. Purple Sun from Renee's Garden Seeds is a beautiful deep-purple carrot with a bright yellow core.
Black Spanish Carrot and Black Nebula from Baker Seeds are two other options. The Black Spanish variety is a reddish-purple carrot thought to have been brought to Spain in the 14th century from North Africa. Described as earthy and spicy, this carrot has a deep-purple exterior with a cream-colored interior. It is especially happy planted in winter or early spring as it thrives with constant moisture, so if you are feeling a little cabin crazy, this carrot seed might be for you.
Black Nebula is the darkest, purplest carrot I have ever seen. This carrot is worthy of a little kitchen magic with the kids. When juiced, Black Nebula is a deep, rich purple, but if seed catalogs are to be believed, a healthy squeeze of lemon turns the carrot juice bright pink. Promises like these make Black Nebula a must-grow in my winter garden.
Maroon and purply-red lettuces, purple plum radishes and purple-podded peas and snap pea seeds are all available and can be planted now and in the coming months to provide fresh salad ingredients nightly.
If winter gardening isn't for you, summer crops offer purple options as well. Purple-podded string beans, purple peppers, purple tomatillos, purple basils and black and purple tomatoes are all healthful additions to the diet and striking additions to an edible or ornamental garden.
The Whole Seed Catalog from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds has a fascinating article by Jamie Jackson on the health benefits and latest research on anthocyanins. I recommend it highly to those who want to know more.
Workshops: U. C. Master Gardeners of Napa County will conduct 2 January workshops:
"Rose Pruning" on Saturday, January 5 from 10-12 noon at the UCCE Meeting room, 1710 Soscol Ave, Napa. Get all your Rose pruning questions answered at this interactive workshop. Topics include rose types, how and when to prune, what tools to use along with tool care, safety, and sanitation. For registration Online Registration (credit card only) or Mail-in/Walk-in registration (check only or drop off cash payment).
“How to Plan and Plant a Home Vineyard” on Saturday, January 12, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., in Yountville. Join our Integrated Grape Team members to learn techniques for planning and planting a home vineyard. The workshop will be held at a new home vineyard planted last year. Learn the necessary planning steps, become familiar with the checklist of activities, methods of determining the proper rootstock, selection of wine grape varietals for specific locations and estimated yield calculations. Review our calendar timeline for planning, site preparation, initial planting and timing of the first harvest for a new home vineyard. Online registration (credit card only); Mail-in/Walk-in registration (check only or drop off cash payment).
Master Gardeners are volunteers who help the University of California reach the gardening public with home gardening information. U. C. Master Gardeners of Napa County (http:/napamg.ucanr.edu) ) are available to answer gardening questions in person or by phone, Monday, Wednesday and Friday, 9 a.m. to Noon, at the U. C. Cooperative Extension office, 1710 Soscol Avenue, Suite 4, Napa, 707-253-4143, or from outside City of Napa toll-free at 877-279-3065. Or e-mail your garden questions by following the guidelines on our web site. Click on Napa, then on Have Garden Questions? Find us on Facebook under UC Master Gardeners of Napa County.