(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on January 20, 2008. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to promptly respond to new questions or comments.)
Upon arriving in the US I was mystified to find that here usually only the green stalks of the celery are eaten. In Europe, the root is essential to flavor soups, stews and salad, and in France and the Low countries is eaten as ‘celery remoulade’ a delicious and nutritious salad, also used as a great accompaniment to roasted meat and fish. The flavor of mashed potatoes is given an interesting twist by adding a celery root in with the potatoes when cooking them. The celery stalks are usually cooked and eaten as a vegetable. The celery leaves too are an essential flavoring, used similar to celery seeds here (which, conversely, are virtually unknown in Europe but used in recipes in Arab countries and India)
So let’s investigate this complex plant, with the botanical name Apium graveolens, which is a member of the parsley (Apiaceae) family. Conium maculatum, or Poison Hemlock, is a close relative. This plant’s fame stems from its use in the execution of the famous Greek philosopher, Socrates, who drank an extract from this plant.
But back to celery itself:
The word celery comes from the Greek "selinon," which is how it is referred to in ‘The Odyssey’ by Homer. It has been cultivated in the mediterranean regions of Europe for at least 3000 years.
At the beginning of the 9th century, The emperor Charlemagne wrote an edict called ‘Capitulare de villis vel curtis imperii Caroli Magni’ in which he defined a large number of rules for his Frankish empire. At the end of the document there is a large list of culinary and medical herbs that he declares should be grown in every Imperial garden. Celery was on this list and this started its spread throughout Europe.
We usually think of Celery as a salad food. However, the original wild celery had a number of more interesting uses, such as being made into garlands to be worn at funerals.
And the Chinese too have been using celery since the 5th century AD. Chinese celery has a much stronger flavor than the variety that we know. It is rarely eaten raw, but is a popular addition to soups and stir-fries. Celery plays quite an important part in the Creole cookery of New Orleans, where celery stalks show up frequently in dishes like gumbo.
Celery loses its crisp texture when frozen, but it is then still suitable for use in cooked dishes. As with all vegetables, only the best, freshest stalks should be used for freezing; they should be blanched and then frozen promptly.
Celery can add a refreshing taste to your juice recipes too.
However, the value of celery goes well beyond the culinary. It is said that in ancient Rome, was worn around the neck to ward off a hangover from a particularly hardy night of partying. Perhaps this is where the practice of putting a stalk of celery in a Bloody Mary comes from!
Celery Seeds are used in the treatment of rheumatism, arthritis and gout. They are also an important source of iron.
Many foods lose much of their value when cooked; however, celery does not. Eating 1 cup of cooked or uncooked celery will provide you with a good portion of your daily nutritional requirement; however, it's the leaves that contain the most nutritional benefits. So just by altering your in small ways, adding a little bit of celery seed, or sprinkling a few celery leaves over your sauces and , you will enjoy the benefits of a healthier life.
There are even claims that celery has a ‘negative caloric content’ – since the vegetable has so few calories, munching on a stalk and digesting it will burn up more calories than you take in! If that isn’t endorsement enough I don’t know what is!
The celery plant is slender and stands about two to three feet tall. It has three to five segmented leaves, and flowers with small white petals. The celery you buy in the store has been artificially ‘blanched’ by depriving it of light. This gives the stalks a more subtle flavor. Your home grown celery will have a darker, deeper green color.
It is not an uncomplicated crop, the tiny seeds are difficult to sow and germinate and the young plants are very susceptible to frost. With their long growing period (about 120 days) this can be tricky. It is best to start Celery indoors about ten weeks before the last expected frost of spring in your growing region. By the time that the weather warms up outdoors the celery transplants should be stocky and about three or four inches tall with nicely developed root systems. At this time the celery seedlings can be hardened off and transplanted out into the prepared raised beds.
Celery is a heavy feeder that requires plenty of moisture and high levels of organic matter throughout its long growing season. Raised beds are perfect for growing celery in the home garden. They can offer the fertile soil rich in organic matter that will drain quickly yet retain the moisture required for celery plants to grow rapidly and without interruption. But in exchange for the effort home grown celery will reward you with flavor and nutritional value that surpasses that of the commercial varieties found at your local grocers. In addition, there are many heirloom varieties, some with interesting colors, that will give you some variety.
Home grown celery can be harvested a stalk or two at a time from each plant throughout the growing season. Just gently twist off the largest outer stalks from the base of the plant.
If you’ve been successful at improving your garden’s soil, growing celery in the home garden may not be as difficult as you expected.