By Audrey Stallsmith
Develops the jaw,
But celery, stewed,
Is more quietly chewed
"Celery" by Ogden Nash
I add celery to many dishes, even chopping some of the leaves into oyster soup, without thinking much about the plant. Like onions and carrots, the vegetable has become so omnipresent as to be taken for granted. Or to be made fun of, as in the poem above!
The original wild celery (Apium graveolens) pictured above, which probably originated in the Mediterranean, was a much more spare and bitter plant known as smallage. Apium, comes from the Greek apon, “water,” as the plant was thought to grow best in swampy areas. Graveolens derives from the Latin gravis (“heavy”) and olens (“smelling”). Its stalks often hollow and its flavor too strong for most palates, smallage was generally employed only as a medicinal herb—or served at funeral dinners.
The latter can be attributed to its supposed association with Hades, the god of the underworld. Apparently, to eat the plant at other times would invite too close an association with that deity! Smallage was also believed to be harmful to epileptics, or even to cause epilepsy, though I don’t know what the reasoning was behind that.
In ancient literature, however, it can be difficult to distinguish whether the plant being discussed is smallage or the closely related parsley. Somewhere around the 1600s, Italian gardeners discovered that growing the former under cool conditions—and blanching it—made it less bitter. Thereafter, v. dulce (“sweet”) was tacked onto the scientific name for modern celery. The common name probably is a corruption of the Greek and Latin common names for the plant: selinon or selinum.
The self-blanching type of celery is still preferred overseas, though we Yanks like ours green. Surprisingly enough, celery can cause an anaphylactic shock—especially in residents of central Europe—which is much like the peanut allergy more common in this country.
Supposedly, it can cause other reactions too, since celery seed has been touted as an aphrodisiac and superstition held that the seed placed in a person’s shoes could cause that person to fly. One of the so-called “hot” herbs, celery was also used to rid the body of excess fluid and to soothe both the digestion and nerves.
In his book, The Green Pharmacy, James Duke recommends the vegetable for such problems as angina, cardiac arrhythmia, dizziness, gout, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol. Don’t use celery seed if you are pregnant, though, as it reportedly can also stimulate contractions.
If you want to try growing celery in your garden, keep in mind that it prefers daytime temperatures below 75 degrees Fahrenheit and nighttime ones that dip below 60. If you attempt it during a very hot summer, therefore, you are likely to end up with a plant as stringy and bitter as the original smallage. At least, when the much more succulent modern celery turns up in your Thanksgiving stuffing this year, you can be thankful that you don’t have to wait until somebody dies to partake of it!
Apium graveolens image is from Herbarium Blackwellianum by Elisabeth Blackwell, courtesy of the Missouri Botanical Garden.