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Chinese/Napa Cabbage and Oriental Leaves

Chinese or napa cabbage – Brassica rapa, Pekinensis Group

Pak choi/bok choi – Brassica rapa, Chinensis Group

(and other Latin names – see below)

This lesson is titled Chinese cabbage because it takes up more than half of the content – it is a fast and exciting vegetable to grow. I give information on other vegetables from Asia because they are closely related and you can grow them in similar ways.

All are part of the wonderful and enormous species of Brassica rapa vegetables from China, Japan, Korea and many Asian countries.

Chinese cabbage is called napa cabbage in North America. It is uncertain whether this word comes from the Napa Valley, where it was first grown commercially, or from the Japanese word ‘nappa’, which means leafy vegetable.

  • The heavy and fast-growing heads of Chinese cabbage result from centuries of breeding in China (especially in the Beijing region) between turnips and pak choi, of which bok choy is the equivalent American term.
  • The choi/choy vegetables of Chinensis Group vegetables do not make heads. Their growth of new leaves is strong in cool winter months, the best time to grow them. This is true for mustards and rocket too, with the one exception of wild or perennial wall rocket – see below.
Hearts of winter cabbages in late October – here we have Tundra, Chinese, Granat red and Paresa Savoy cabbage
Slug and caterpillar damage to Chinese cabbage in early November
26th February – comparing the speed of winter growth outdoors, between Samish F1 spinach on the left and Yuushou F1 pak choi on the right


There is a minefield of colloquial words used. I am aware that my audience is from many countries, where the descriptive terms vary.

This lesson uses a range of names in English and Latin, but cannot be comprehensive, otherwise there would be more descriptive terms than descriptions! The photos can give you clues to my descriptions if you are unsure.

Harvest period

  • Days from seed to first harvest: Pekinensis heads 70–80, Chinensis leaves 30–40 (similar for most Oriental leaves).
  • Best climate for these covers many possibilities, from temperate to continental, but with no excessive heat or continual cold.

Why grow them

Chinese cabbage makes heads far faster than ordinary cabbage. They make it possible to have a considerable amount of cabbage leaves in autumn, from one sowing right at the end of summer. This enables productive use of ground in the autumn, which might otherwise be empty after a preceding harvest of beans, onions or beetroot, even early summer squash.

Likewise, the leaves of pak choi and tatsoi come to harvest fast. As with Chinese cabbage, they are highly susceptible to damage from many insects.

From one sowing you can harvest many times, and they are useful as catch crops in the autumn or even in early spring, though only briefly, before insects arrive and flowering initiates.

The heads of Chinese cabbage make super sauerkraut, and the leaves of all other vegetables here contribute strong and varied flavours and textures, to both cooked and salad dishes. They bring a valuable amount of chlorophyll to winter cuisine when other greens are scarce.

In this late October harvest, the Wong Bok variety is very long!
An outdoor harvest of Oriental leaves in late August – left Joi Choi, right Komatsuna, top Red Choi and bottom Mibuna; all transplanted four weeks earlier
Mid-March – Chinese cabbage have been picked for leaves through the winter in the polytunnel; they were sown in September

Pattern of growth

Spring flowering means that spring sowing is considerably less productive for leaves than sowing in late summer and early autumn.

Chinese cabbage is the only one of these vegetables to make firm heads. Pak choi makes a tight cluster of leaves, which are often harvested as a loose head, all together.

  • These all grow faster than perhaps any other vegetables. If you enjoy spicy flavours and want salad and cooking leaves in autumn, even through to winter, these are for you.

Types and varieties

Just a few examples from the hundreds available.

Chinese Cabbage

Yuki F1, Blues F1 and Sativa are barrel-shaped and firm. Sativa is slightly longer, matures a little later and stores well.

Wong Bok variety is one of many barrel types that grow very long and are less suitable for long-term storage.

Michihili is a type with pointed leaves in medium-sized heads, shaped like cos/romaine lettuce. Leaves are tender and sweet.

There are a few red varieties, mostly hybrids. The colour is rich and varied but heads are not heavy.

6th October – this Sarvita F1 Chinese red cabbage doesn’t make a firm head but the colour is amazing
9th October – a few days later, a Blues F1 Chinese cabbage shown under mesh, after the outer leaves have been removed

Oriental leaves, including Pekinensis, Juncea and the rockets

Mustard leaves/Oriental mustard (Brassica juncea)

Originated in the Himalayan foothills. Mustards are a large family, with many cultivated varieties of pungent mustards and the less spicy mizuna and mibuna. A spectrum of red and green colour variations occur, and the speed of growth is remarkable.

15th October – Wasabyna mustard after three picks; these were transplanted 46 days earlier
16th March – red giant mustard overwintered outside
Early December – mostly mustards in a mushroom box filled with multipurpose compost, from a mid-October sowing in the unheated greenhouse

Pak choi

Varieties are available in huge number. My favourite is the hybrid Joi Choi for its large white stems and vigour of growth. Tatsoi is a lower growing type of pak choi, forming beautiful rosettes of leaves, and Yukina Savoy is probably the most vigorous and upright.

Pak choi Baraku F1 on 31st August – it could be cut as a head or picked of outer leaves
These pak choi were transplanted on 9th September and are now being kept safe under mesh against insects; they were sown on 18th August and pricked out to modules under cover
A light autumn frost on the same pak choi, two months later; the frost is fine, as it’s not lower than -2 °C/28 °F

Salad rocket/arugula (Eruca versicaria, Sativa Group)

Native to the Mediterranean region. In temperate climates it crops most prolifically outdoors in autumn and under cover in winter, from sowings in late summer and until the autumn equinox – see the photos below and in the ‘Interplant’ section.

Wild rocket/perennial wall rocket/wild arugula (Diplotaxis tenuifolia)

Grows wild in the Mediterranean region. It crops most prolifically through spring to early summer, from sowings in early autumn. To enjoy pungent rocket flavour over a long period, you can combine the spring cropping of wild rocket with the autumn and winter cropping of salad rocket.

Salad rocket on 12th October – this has been under a fine mesh since being transplanted 60 days earlier, and has been picked for the past four weeks
As good as it gets with flea beetle! 12th June – overwintered wild rocket, with almost no damage at all thanks to ultra-fine mesh
Salad rocket in early May, when flea beetle holes are typical – this was covered by fleece with a few holes

Suitable for containers/shade?

All of these tolerate shade and are worth growing in containers. You can harvest leaves all through late autumn and then through winter if you have a space under cover – see the photos for ideas.

9th November in the greenhouse – we have a box of potting compost with endives, pak choi, including red pak choi, mustards and spinach, sown in September
In March, at the end of winter, this Chinese cabbage is flowering and the Red Frills mustard will soon bloom too; these were overwintered indoors in boxes of compost
Salad leaves are surviving the -8 °C/18 °F chills outside; it’s also freezing undercover but less so, and with no precipitation or wind

sow & propagate
Transplant - Size, time of year, Spacing, support
container growing
Prune and train plants/thin fruit
Harvest times and method
Potential problems


Normally one is clearing these plants, or any remains of them, in late autumn, with no time for new plantings afterwards. Use a sharp knife or trowel to cut stems at soil level, or simply twist out any residue.

Then spread some compost as cover in winter, food for soil organisms, and for plants through the coming year.

Follow with

In terms of timing, you have the whole of a year to enjoy growing whatever you like. Rotation theory says not to grow brassicas, but I don’t see this as a rule, rather a guideline.

I prefer to grow vegetables of a different family after brassicas, but sometimes, and especially for those growing a lot of brassicas, you grow them consecutively.