Parsley (Petroselinum crispum) is a European taprooted biennial in the Celery Family (Apiaceae or Umbelliferae), prized for many centuries for its uses in cooking and medicine. During its first year of growth, parsley sprouts aromatic clumps of bright to dark green, compound, curled or flattened, vitamin-rich leaves commonly used fresh in salads, soups, chicken, fish, vegetable and egg dishes. With chervil, chives, and French tarragon, parsley composes the traditional French fines herbes mixture.
In the summer of its second year, parsley puts up 2 to 3-foot flower-stalks. The flowers are arranged in rayed umbels of 8 to 20 rays each, each ray terminating in a tiny golden blossom. When pollinated, parsley flowers become the highly aromatic parsley seed of commerce. (The Emperor Charlemagne is said to have loved parsley-seed-flavored cheese so much he ordered two cases sent to him yearly.)
Petroselinum crispum var. crispum is the curly parsley or French parsley so familiar to American gardeners
and cooks. Petroselinum crispum var. neapolitanum is flatleaf or Italian parsley, which bears uncurled leaves. These two strains are the ones most widely grown in North America, but there is a third that deserves much wider cultivation: Petroselinum crispum var. tuberosum, the turnip-rooted or Hamburg parsley, also called parsley root, prized for its thick, fleshy, richly flavored roots , which stand up much better than parsley leaves to prolonged stewing and have a mellower flavor than the seeds do.
Parsley’s health benefits are legion. According to Audrey Wynne Hatfield in A Complete Culinary Herbal, parsley leaves contain 3 times the vitamin C of oranges
and nearly as much vitamin A as most grades of cod liver oil. While poisonous to birds, especially parrots, fresh parsley makes a good addition to other animal feeds. Says Hatfield, “Hares and rabbits seek it and eat it avidly; sheep like it because if they can eat enough it prevents foot-rot.” Upon being dried, parsley leaves lose much of their scent, flavor, and nutritive value, so having a continuous supply of the fresh leaves is important. This can be accomplished by making two parsley plantings, once in spring and once in late summer.
PARSLEY IN HISTORY & FOLKLORE
The ancient Greek physician Dioskorides called the plant petroselinon, rock parsley, which entered English first as petrocilium, then petersylinge, then persele, persely, and (finally) parsley.
In its wild form, parsley resembles certain poisonous herbs of the same family, which is perhaps why the ancient Greeks associated it with the death goddess Persephone. According to one myth reported by Hatfield, the “mythological hero Archemorus, the forerunner of death … was carelessly laid by his nurse on a Parsley leaf and was eaten by serpents.” The Greeks adorned the tombs of their dead with parsley leaves, and wove the leaves into crowns to place on the heads of victorious athletes in the Isthmian games, possibly because of another tradition which stated that strongman Herakles (Hercules to the Romans) formed his first party garlands out of parsley. Parsley wreaths were worn at some ancient Greek feasts — Theokritos (300 B.C.E.) mentions garlands of hyacinth and parsley adorning the heads of young women attending the wedding feast of the king of Sparta — and parsley and rue (Ruta graveolens) were grown as borders in ancient Greek gardens.
The Roman writer Pliny is the first to mention the use of parsley in curing the ills of captive fish: “If a man perceives that the fish in any pond … grow sickly, it is a common practice to give them green parsley” (Natural History, 77 A.C.E.). This advice is repeated as late as 1600 in Richard Surflet’s The Countrie Farme. Pliny also mentions parsley and honey ointment for eye troubles, and referring to parsley’s use in Roman cookery, exclaims, “Parsley … contents everybody.”
In the 12th century, the writer of Macer’s Herbal recommends grinding parsley with vinegar and oil of roses to make a headache-relieving ointment (it was applied to the forehead). Macer’s also recommends the smoke from burning parsley plants as a remedy for driving away venomous serpents from grainfields. Eating parsley was thought to protect you from snakes, too. “Therefore,” Macer says, “it is the custom for reapers to mix parsley into their food, so that venomous beasts should flee from them and do them no harm if it happens that they [the reapers] should fall asleep [in the grainfield] when they are tired” (my translation).
Curly parsley was so prized in 16th century England that Thomas Hyll, the writer of the first English gardening book (The Proffitable Arte of Gardening, 1568) gave this advice for changing flatleaf parsley to the curly kind:
“And if you will have the leaves of the Parcely grow crysped, then before the sowing of them stuffe a Tennis ball with the seedes, and beat the same well agaynst the ground, whereby the seeds may be a lytle bruised, and then sowe them in the ground, or when the Parcelye is well come up goe over the bedde with a wayghty roller, whereby it may so presse the leaves downe, or elles [else] treade the same downe with thy feete.”
Hyll’s advice was still being disseminated a hundred years later (a thorough understanding of parsley plant genetics was some centuries off). Hyll also recommends “chawinge” of fresh, green parsley to “amende a fowle stinkinge breathe,” a recommendation echoed by Richard Surflet in The Countrie Farme (1600), who adds, “The often use of parsley taketh away the stinking of the breath, especially from such as have drunke much wine or eaten garlike.” Forty years later, John Parkinson (Theatrum Botanicum) mentions distilled parsley water (probably made from the seeds) as a “familiar medicine with nurses, to give their children when they are wrung in the stomacke or belly with wind, which they call the frets.”
Parsley came to the Americas with the European colonists, who also brought with them their parsley superstitions. In A Garden of Herbs, Eleanour Sinclair Rohde reports, “In England old-fashioned gardeners will often tell you they never transplant parsley, as it would bring misfortune on every one in the house.” She also reports a related Southern African-American tradition that it was “unlucky to transplant parsley from the old home to the new.” Unlucky for the parsley, at least; being a taprooted biennial, parsley does not take easily to transplanting once its root has sunk deeply into the soil.
CURLY PARSLEY VARIETIES
- P. crispum var. crispum ‘Bravour’: European variety bearing dark green, finely curled leaves on longish stems.
- P. crispum var. crispum ‘Champion Moss Curled’: Award-winning cultivar yields compact plants with decorative, rich green, tightly curled foliage.
- P. crispum var. crispum ‘Curlina’: Another European cultivar, with extra-curly leaves.
- P. crispum var. crispum ‘Darki’: Super-curly, very dark green leaves on upright, easy-to-harvest plants.
- P. crispum var. crispum ‘Evergreen’: Compact, 7 to 10 inches tall plants bear dark green, finely cut, tightly curled leaves of pleasant flavor.
- P. crispum var. crispum ‘Exotica’: An extra-hardy curly parsley strain from Europe.
- P. crispum var. crispum ‘Favorit’: Strong, upright, compact, vigorous 13-inch tall plants bear tightly curled, very dark green leaves with a bright, clean parsley flavor.
- P. crispum var. crispum ‘Forest Green’: 10 to 12-inch tall, long-stemmed plants of stiff, upright habit bear both double and triple curled leaves of good flavor and beautiful emerald green color. Holds color well all season, tolerating both heat and repeated cuttings. A great choice for market gardeners since the long-stemmed cuts are easily bunchable.
- P. crispum var. crispum ‘Grüne Perle’ (“Green Pearl”): Highly decorative, flavorful, very tightly curled, dark green leaves.
- P. crispum var. crispum ‘Krausa’: Tall plants with strong, thick, sweet, solid, crunchy, celery-like stems and beautiful, densely curled medium- to dark-green leaves.
- P. crispum var. crispum ‘Oriental Green Carpet’: Triple-curled parsley variety developed expressly for a biennial ground cover. Even carpeting habit.
- P. crispum var. crispum ‘Sweet Curly’: Offered by Renee’s Garden Seeds, and described as a French variety providing “handsome plumes” of curly green leaves and a flavor “especially sweet and nutty tasting without harsh metallic overtones.”
- P. crispum var. crispum ‘Triple Curled’: Fast-growing, bolt resistant cultivar produces finely curled dark leaves which hold for a long time on the plant even in warm weather.
FLATLEAF PARSLEY VARIETIES
The following parsley varieties are selections from Petroselinum crispum var. neapolitanum, also known as Italian Parsley and, in Britain, as Celery-Leaved Parsley. Mature plants, which can get 1 to 3 feet tall the second year, bear stout stems that may be cut and prepared like celery.
- P. crispum var. neapolitanum ‘Commune 2′: A flatleaf parsley with smallish, intensely flavored leaves.
- P. crispum var. neapolitanum ‘Dark Green Italian’: Upright, vigorous plants bear lots of large, wide, smooth, shiny, dark green leaves.
- P. crispum var. neapolitanum ‘Gigante Italian’: May be same as ‘Giant From Italy’ and ‘Gigante di Napoli’ below. Offered by Renee’s Garden Seeds; Renee’s describes it as having very large, glossy leaves and “exceptionally sweet, mellow flavor.”
- P. crispum var. neapolitanum ‘Giant From Italy’: Large bushy plants; big crops of large flat leaves with strong parsley flavor over a long season. May be the same as ‘Gigante Italian’ above and ‘Gigante di Napoli’ below.
- P. crispum var. neapolitanum ‘Gigante di Napoli’ (aka ‘Giant of Naples’): Very large, flat leaf variety from Naples, Italy. Incredible flavor. Very cold hardy.
- P. crispum var. neapolitanum ‘Survivor’: Flat, dark green leaves on particularly cold-hardy plants.
- P. crispum var. neapolitanum ‘Titan’: Compact, upright, uniform plants yield extra-sweet, extra-petite, dark green leaves with outstanding flavor.
TURNIP-ROOTED PARSLEY VARIETIES
The following parsley varieties are selections from Petroselinum crispum var. tuberosum,
sometimes referred to also as P. crispum var. radicosum. Spring-planted starts mature in fall but may be left unharvested in the soil into the winter. Parsley roots’ flavor has been likened to a cross between celery and carrot or parsnip. They sliced or grated raw into salads, or boiled, roasted, or fried. Try them mashed with potatoes, sprinkled with chives and perhaps a touch of mild curry powder. The young leaves add good flavor to soups or stews; and one wag has called the plant “Jewish penicillin” because of its use in health-giving chicken soups (the archetypal “Jewish mother”‘s favorite home remedy).
- P. crispum var. tuberosum ‘Arat’: New European variety yielding straight white roots up to 11.5 inches long with a nutty, carrot-celery flavor. Leaves are flavorful, too!
- P. crispum var. tuberosum ‘Bartowich Long’ : Standard European variety furnishing 5 to 8-inch long white roots.
- P. crispum var. tuberosum ‘Fakir’: High-yielding Dutch cultivar with smooth, well-filled roots.
Parsleys prefer full sun in cool summer climates; full morning sun and partial afternoon shade in most of the Southwest. They also require a rich, compost-enriched, fertile soil that is kept moist. They are tolerant of clay as long as it is well-fertilized and reasonably well-drained. I have seen curly parsley employed as a beautiful ground cover beneath the dappled shade of a quaking aspen in a Santa Fe yard; the brilliant green of the leaves contrasted vividly with the aspen’s white trunk and the red clay colors of the house’s adobe walls. Parsley is nearly as lovely the second year, when it puts up its stalks of flat-headed yellow bloom-clusters, and the blossoms attract butterflies, always welcome in the garden.
COOKING WITH PARSLEY
Parsley is one of the classic French fines herbes, and blends well in cooking with bay leaves (Laurus nobilis), thyme (Thymus spp.) and sweet marjoram (Majorana hortensis). According to Rosemary Hemphill, all parts of the parsley plant contain apiol, a natural chemical that has been found beneficial for the kidneys. The leaves contain vitamins A, B, and C, plus iron, and are best added to cooked dishes at the last moment. Fresh parsley leaves are an essential ingredient of Lebanese tabbouleh, a delicious salad made of softened cracked wheat, onions, tomatoes, olive oil, lemon juice, spearmint, and parsley. (Sometimes chicken, duck, smoked salmon, or tofu are added.)
Hemphill recommends cooking parsley root (P. crispum var. tuberosum) as you would carrots, parsnips, and turnips; the root’s clean parsley flavor and aroma last much longer in cooking than the flavor and aroma of the leaves do, making it ideal addition to meat or vegetable stews. The roots of flatleaved parsley (P. crispum var. neapolitanum) get sizable, too, particularly the second year, and may be used in cooking as well.
SOURCES FOR THIS ARTICLE
- Griffiths, Mark. Index of Garden Plants. (Portland: Timber Press, Inc., 1994; ISBN 0-88192-246-3.)
- Hemphill, Rosemary. Herbs For All Seasons. (Penguin Books Ltd., Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England, 6th Printing, 1983; ISBN 0-14046-217-1.)
- Park Seeds, wholesale catalogue, 2007-2008 issue. (parkwholesale.com)
- Renee’s Garden Seeds, website (reneesgarden.com)