Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences
Hendry County Horticulture News
Pak Choi - A Tasty and Versatile Oriental Vegetable
Pak choi is native to south east Asia, where it has been cultivated for thousands of years. The Celts brought the vegetable to the British Isles, and it became popular in Europe in the late 1800s. From there it arrived in the United States around 1900, but did not gain popularity until recently. The plant is grown for its thick white tender stalks that are the petioles and main veins of the leaves. The leaves are dark, glossy green with white veins. There is also a miniature green variety with green tender stems.
Pak choi, Brassica rapa (Chinensis group), is also known as celery cabbage, Chinese celery and Chinese mustard cabbage, is more closely related to mustard than cabbage. The Cantonese name is bok choy or pak choi and the Mandarin name is bai cai. The name means white vegetable in Chinese. Pak choi is a member of the mustard family, Brassicaceae, to which cabbage, mustard, broccoli, kohlrabi and turnips belong. There are many forms that range greatly in size, leaf shape and color. Locally adapted varieties that can be found easily include Wong Bok, Bok Choi and Joi Choi.
Pak choi performs best in full sun. Provide rich, loose soil that is very well drained to prevent crown rot. Incorporate plenty of well rotted manure or other organic matter into the planting bed to help retain moisture. If your garden site is low enough to be poorly drained, it is best to plant on raised beds for improved drainage.
Plant pak choi from September to the end of March to take advantage of cool weather which it prefers. Seeds can be sown directly in the garden or started in trays or individual pots to avoid damaging the roots in transplanting and for quicker harvest. Sow the seeds 1/4- ½ inch deep, approximately three to four inches apart in the row, in rows 12 - 24 inches apart and then thin to 8-12 inches apart. In our area, start the plants indoors in mid-August for planting in mid to late September.
Pak choi is a heavy feeder, so plant in well fertilized beds. Fertilize with composted manure or a balanced fertilizer before planting and again about four weeks after setting out transplants. Take precautions against cabbage worms, cabbage root maggots and flea beetles. The plants should be sprayed regularly with Bacillus thuringiensis to prevent worm damage. Some organic gardeners report luck in keeping pests at bay by alternating rows of pak choi with garlic and green onions.
Pak choi greens can be used as early as 30 days after sowing; it takes about 50-60 days to have harvestable heads. Harvest the outer leaves while they are tender early in season. As the weather heats up, harvest the tender inner leaves. You can also cut the whole head, which will weigh 3-4 pounds. Pak choi is a cool season vegetable and tends to bolt quickly in the spring. Breeders are working to develop types that take longer to bolt, but most varieties will send up a flowering stalk as the weather grows warmer and longer in the late spring. A flower stalk usually indicates that the stalks and leaves are getting tough. Pak choi keeps several weeks in the refrigerator.
One of the beauties of pak choi is its versatility. The whole plant is edible and can be eaten at virtually any stage - even the young flowering shoots are edible. The stalks of pak choi are not fibrous even though the plant is sometimes called celery cabbage. They are tender, and particularly good when cooked lightly in a stir-fry. Pak choi is a main ingredient in many Chinese recipes. The stalks can also be shredded and added to cole slaw with other types of cabbage. The leaves are good when prepared like other greens, and the thinned seedlings are superb when lightly sautéed. Pak choi can be blanched and frozen to add to soups and stews.
Try it, you'll like it! Although pak choi may appear somewhat exotic to gardeners used to planting standard cabbage varieties, you may find that it becomes a regular item in your garden after you give it a try. Good luck and good gardening.
Gene McAvoy is the horticulture agent with the Hendry County Extension Service. Direct your horticulture questions to PO Box 68, LaBelle, FL 33975, e-mail - firstname.lastname@example.org or phone 863-674-4092 or 863-983-1598. You are also welcome to visit the Hendry County Extension Office at 225 Pratt Blvd., LaBelle. Office hours are from 8:00 - 5:00.
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