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Perverse Parsley

By Audrey Stallsmith


. . .the vicomte was presented to the company in the most elegant and advantageous light, like the roast-beef on the hot dish garnished with green parsley.

War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy

The innocent-looking sprig of parsley that embellishes your restaurant plate is an herb that once decorated corpses and graves! In Greek mythology, it sprang from the blood of an infant prince killed by a snake, and was dedicated to Persephone, wife of Hades. A common remark about the deceased was, “He has need now of nothing but a little parsley.”

Perhaps that early association with death was responsible for the belief that only the wicked could successfully grow parsley—and that trampling it would bring bad fortune upon a household. Not to mention that any soldier foolhardy enough to touch the stuff before a battle had better resign himself to his doom!

The plant’s slow germination rate supported the superstition that the seed had to go to the devil and back seven times before sprouting—and that he kept some of it! In an effort to counteract these evil influences, gardeners sometimes sowed parsley seeds on Good Friday.

The herb’s official name is carum petroselinum, the latter meaning “rock selinon,” as opposed to “marsh selinon” which is celery. Petroselinum was anglicized into Petersylinge, which eventually blurred into persele, persely, and, finally, parsley.

There are four main types. The broad-leafed Hamburg parsley is grown for its enlarged roots, of which there are long, white, parsnip-like and round, sugar, turnip-like varieties. The celery-leafed Neapolitan parsley is raised, like celery, for its stalks. Plain-leafed parsley is hardier than the curly-leafed, but the plain-leafed’s taste and appearance are considered inferior. Since the plant is a biennial, it will die after setting seed the second year.

Although good for most people, parsley can cause rashes on sensitive skin, and some claim that it can also be fatal to birds. Never pick anything in the wild that looks like parsley, since there are three extremely toxic plants—water hemlock, poison hemlock, and fool’s parsley—that resemble the herb.

Besides being used to flavor a wide variety of dishes, parsley has many nutritional uses. It is high in vitamins A and C, as well as iron and calcium. According to James Duke’s Green Pharmacy, the herb is also rich in boron and fluorine, both of which help strengthen the bones.

He recommends applying crushed parsley leaves to speed the healing of bruises and chewing the chlorophyll-rich sprigs to freshen the breath. Because it is a diuretic, parsley is also good for the kidneys and contains a tumor-inhibiting amino acid called histidine. So don’t leave it on your plate!

Plant plate is from Kohler's Medizinal Pflanzen, courtesy of the Missouri Botanical Garden Library.