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Plant of the Month: March 2003

Apium graveolens L.

    To most people celery is a vegetable that is bought at the market. It is prized for its long crunchy stalks and biting flavor. Until I actually grew it in my garden, and learned more about it, I tended to despise it as "watery though well-flavored crunch with practically no color or nutrition." Well, there is more to it than that. In this article I will share an overview.
    The plant is one of about 25 species in the genus Apium. It is native in brackish wet areas of Eurasia, and also has escaped cultivation and now grows wild elsewhere. For example, in the tideflats of Seattle it has been noticed growing among bulrushes. Alas, the soil is too polluted for the plant to be safely eaten.
    Long ago gardeners selected celery for its leafstalks, and through selective breeding originated cultivars that feature enlarged leafstalks. Such cultivars fall under the var. dulce, while those selected for enlarged roots are var. rapaceum the celeriac or turnip-rooted celery.
    Celery's distinctive flavor and to a lesser degree its appearance have led to other plants, whether wholly wild or cultivated, to also being called celery:

Apium australe (or Apium prostratum ssp. filiforme) in New Zealand is called Maori Celery.
Apium prostratum from Australasia is called Sea Parsley or Australian Celery.
Carum Roxburghianum from India is called Wild Celery as well as Ajmud or Randhuni.
Ligusticum Hultenii from far eastern Asia, and Alaska, is called Sea Lovage or Wild Celery.
Lomatium nudicaule is called Wild or Indian Celery as well as Indian Consumption Plant. It is a western North American perennial, favoring sunny sites and well-draining soil. More information about this species, and an illustration, is on pages 244-245 of my book Wild Plants of Greater Seattle.
Œnanthe javanica is called Vietnamese Celery, Chinese Celery, Korean Watercress, and so on.
Œnanthe sarmentosa is called Water Celery. It is a western North American perennial, growing in water or wet sites. More information about this species, and an illustration, is on pages 244-245 of my book Wild Plants of Greater Seattle.
Trachyspermum involucratum is an Asian called Wild Celery.
Vallisneria americana is tapegrass or freshwater eelgrass, also called Water Celery and "is sometimes called Wild Celery, because it is said to impart a celery-like flavor to wild ducks that feed on it." --from page 3428 of L.H. Bailey's Standard Cyclopedia of Horticulture (1914 - 1917).

    All of the preceding 9 species except the Vallisneria are in the same plant family as regular celery. I am sure other plants unbeknownst to me can be added. That said, my remarks as follows are all about regular celery, also called garden celery or common celery.
    It is remarkable that of the common plants cultivated in our vegetable gardens, perhaps none has such insignificant-looking and unappealing flowers. Celery flowers are minute and well described as greenish-white or grayish-white. They give rise to tiny seeds, 70,000 to the ounce! The seeds are well known to be slow in sprouting, and with a low viability. Farmers and home gardeners must take some pains to get their celery seedlings established. Some that I started in February of 2001 are now robust plants ready for harvest (see the leaf scan below). I hasten to add that commercial farmers can produce saleable celery in 5 or 6 months; but I took my sweet time. Depending on its growing environment, then, celery can be an annual, biennial or short-lived perennial. The term biennial is usually applied to it, but I think the term monocarpic (dies after it flowers and sets seeds) is most accurate.
    Celery enjoys very rich soil, alkaline, with ample moisture. It does not require such conditions, however. I grow it in part shade, in un-manured soil that is only lightly limed, and it looks lovely and tastes delicious. Most commercial growers will either blanch (lighten) the leafstalks by growing the plants very close together or by covering the stalks with soil, sawdust, paper, black plastic, boards or whatnot. This exercise renders the stalks less strongly flavored, and paler. Since I do not mind Flavor or Chewing, I do not blanch my celery. I shred the stalks and leaves and add them to my salads.
    Some people grow celery not merely to eat, but to admire its lovely foliage. A famous French ornamental vegetable garden called Villandry has used it thus. A man in Seattle hired me to try to recreate the scene for him. It was time consuming, and slow, but did work, up to a pint. All the older leaves had to be plucked off as they faded to yellow. Watering and fertilizing had to be done frequently. If you care to try this, you should know that you can get darker or paler cultivars, the extremes being reddish-green or golden-green.
    In the kitchen celery is well known for serving as the vehicle to scoop up dips such as cream cheese. It is also sliced for stir fries and is added to soups and so on. I will not elaborate. You can use the plant fresh, or use celery seeds, or celery flakes. In commercial cooking the extract is used as a flavoring.
    Medicinal uses of celery are numerous. But first I must point out three cautions. Number one is that some people develop dermatitis when handling celery, and you could be one of these, so be careful. Number two is be aware that some of the wild celeries that I listed are related closely to, and could be mistaken for, deadly poisonous species. So stick with garden celery and do not experiment with gathering wild plants. Number three is that I have read that if one stores celery too long, say three weeks, it can build up toxic levels of furocoumarins. So eat it soon after you harvest or buy it.
    Herbal medicine books discuss celery's role, pointing out that the leaves and stalks have their roles in healing, but so do the seeds. For example, John B. Lust's The Herb Book (1974) says the former's properties are appetizer, diuretic and emmenagogue; while the seeds are carminative and sedative.
    The Oxford Dictionary of Plant-Lore (1995) cites anecdotal instances from Ireland and England of celery being used for rheumatism, urinary trouble, sores and burns.
    On page 45 of Gary Lockhart's book The Herbal Center of Healing (1998) is the following account:

    In 1871 a letter published in The Practical Farmer read: "I have known so many men and women afflicted with nervousness, so that when they stretched out their hands, they shook like aspen leaves on a windy day. By moderate use of the blanched stocks of celery and leaves as a salad, they became as strong and steady as other people."
    The writer goes on to say that fear and nervousness would vanish by moderate use of celery.
    It seems unbelievable that a common vegetable can control nervous problems, but it is even more of a surprise to learn that the common celery (Apium graveolens) is used in south China as a treatment of epilepsy. Chinese pharmacologists investigated and found that celery has two anticonvulsive compounds that protected laboratory animals against electroshock. It may be that some varieties of celery are effective and others are worthless. The Chinese work is a surprising confirmation of an observation published a century before.

    Gary Lockhart's unpublished book The Herbs of the Inside devotes chapter 48 to Herbal Arthritis Cures, and states:

    In 1925 the London Times published a letter on celery seed tea. A lady gave Charles Brudenell-Bruce her formula for arthritis: "Add one ounce of celery seed to one pint of water and boil to a half pint. Strain the tea and bottle it. Take one teaspoonful twice a day in a little water." The tea benefited him, and he began to give it to the people who needed help.
    An old brickmason who lived near him was crippled so much, that it took him three hours to walk three miles to work. He was given the celery seed tea and two weeks later he was walking much faster. Brudenell-Bruce asked: "How long does it take you to walk to work now?" The brickmason replied: "One hour and twenty minutes, and my blessing on you."
    A cigarette maker near Piccadilly Circus was nearly bent double with arthritis, until he was given the celery seed tea. Three days later he was almost normal. A championship golfer hadn't done very well, because of arthritis in his wrists. After he took the celery seed tea, he won the next tournament.
    A British nursing journal repeatedly advised its readers to try celery seed tea if they had arthritis. A doctor in Mysore, India, noted that he treated several British workers with swollen joints with standard arthritis medications without results. When he switched to celery seed tea, they were completely cured.
    To the best to my knowledge, there are no present day studies on this interesting medication.

    Thus, celery is a remarkable curing herb as well as an esteemed vegetable. I do not know whether or not these reports are well or weakly founded. But they are interesting, and something to keep in mind next time you munch celery.


Celery leaf scan

Celery leaf scan by ALJ

Celery in flower photo

Celery in flower photo by ALJ

Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert

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