Sunday, November 12, 2017

Plant Story-- The Under-Appreciated Parsley

Parsley doesn't get much respect. Restaurants garnish plates with a sprig of parsley, but diners rarely eat it.

parsley leaves

And yet, parsley has a long history as a breath-freshener. And will help settle your stomach.

Garden parsley is Petroselium crispum. It is related to dill and carrots in the plant family Apiaceae, also called Umbelliferae, but we grow it for the leaves and rarely see the flowers.

Tales of parsley go back to Ancient Greece. It was sacred to Persephone, Queen of the Underworld. The ancient Greeks surrounded their dead with flowers and fragrant herbs in anticipation of the pleasant odors of the Elysian Fields. Parsley was frequently used that way, both to please the goddess and for its scent.

Selinon was a Greek name for celery, thus parsley's name Petroselium is "rock celery," the celery found in rocky areas (selium being a Latin version of selinon). The scientific name of garden celery is Apium, using a Roman name for celery, but a group of wild celeries are still called Selinum. Europe has a dozen plants that are or have been called celery, wild celery or wild parsley.

In Greek mythology, parsley had a second association with death and the underworld. A favorite story of the Greeks was that of the Seven Against Thebes. These heroes went to take back Thebes from Polynices' twin brother who, although he had agreed to share rulership, refused step down. En route, they stopped in Nemea. The Nemean prince's nurse left him alone to point out the road to Thebes to the Seven and while she was gone the baby prince was killed by a snake--or a dragon depending on your source. Amphiaraus of the Seven saw it as a bad omen for their attack on Thebes and tried to mitigate that by renaming the dead boy Achemorus, "Forerunner of Death." All seven heroes died valiantly in their attack upon Thebes. The Nemean Games, one of Greece's traditional contests, were created in honor of Archemorus. The connection to parsley was that Archemorus was sleeping on a bed of parsley--parsley had been laid down to freshen his bed--when he died. So invoking parsley invokes his guidance into the Underworld.

Greeks frequently planted parsley in graveyards.


Using parsley at funerals and planting it in graveyards was so common that it led a Greek idiom: to be "in need of parsley" was to be on the verge of death. As in, "I'm afraid my great aunt will not likely need of anything but parsley."

By Roman times parsley had a protective role and was woven into the wreaths worn by brides and grooms to deflect evil.

Medically, parsley was well-regarded from the earliest Greek records. The leaves cleansed the breath, especially from garlic, settled the stomach, and eased gas and bloating. Parsley root, dried and powdered, was an even more potent medicine promoting a comfortable stomach and good digestion. Probably Greeks didn't eat parsley as a food, due to all the associations with death. By the Roman era, though, it was served at the end of meals.

Thus, it is no wonder that parsley was spread across Europe. It reached Russia through trade with Greece, certainly by the 11th century. Although sometimes grown as an ornamental, in Russia it was chiefly a medicinal garden herb, called petrosila, Peter's strength, and used for digestive ills.


Parsley was taken into western Europe from Rome. Macer, writing about 1200 in Germany, said parsley's name meant "stone breaker" and that, ground fine with cherry stones and taken in hot water "there is no better remedy for [kidney] stones than this." In the Tacunium Sanitatis, a medieval health manual of the 14th century, parsley was recommended for unblocking occlusions, improving bladder function and relieving menstrual discomfort.

By then it was being grown all over Europe. Indeed, the Tacunium Sanitatis recommended getting it from your garden lest in gathering it wild, you make a mistake and pick a toxic look-alike such as poison hemlock (Conium maculatum). As befits a plant called rock celery, parsley is tolerant of a wide variety of soils and climates, aiding its dispersion across Europe and then the world.

Culpeper, about 1600, recommended garden parsley for comforting the stomach, provoking urine and much more (see Culpeper online)

The juice from the stems has been used as a green food coloring from Roman times.

Since it has been widely-known for centuries, parsley has picked up all kinds of folklore. Vickery in The Oxford Dictionary of Plant Lore reported that, except for apples, there were more superstitions about parsley than any other plant he researched. These included that the person who grows the parsley will be the dominant person in the household (or that healthy parsley indicated the woman rules the house), that only a witch could successfully grow parsley, and that you must plant it on a holy day or the fairies will get it. Often the best holy day was the Friday before Easter: "a north-country saying is that parsley will grow best if sown by the lady of the house at noon on Good Friday. I do it and it works."

The logic for planting on Good Friday was from the widespread belief that the seeds visited the devil before coming up: "[In Sussex] some people say its roots go seven times to Hell and back before it will sprout." Another version of this is that the devil takes most of the seeds, accounting for the poor germination.


Also widespread was the belief that parsley was dangerous to move. "[Around Ilmington, Warwickshire] parsley must not be transplanted. If it is, a member of the family in whose garden the parsley plants are set, will die within the year." The testimonials on this are wonderful, for example: "Many years ago, an 80-year-old neighbor told me, "Never transplant parsley, it always brings bad luck!" Being a trainee-gardener, young and skeptical, I took no notice. When the time came I transplanted what was required. In three weeks I lost my job (no fault of mine), accidentally killed my cat and lost a sum of money. [Cornwall, 1993]" (English folklore quotes from Vickery pp. 273-4)

Today parsley is probably the most-consumed fresh herb, despite most of us leaving it on our plates. More than $19 million of parsley was sold in the United States in 2016. All over the world it is an important small crop.

Beyond fresh parsley leaves as a garnish, parsley is an important herb as an ingredient, from stuffing for turkey to cheeses and sauces (persillade) to herb mixes such as fines herbs. My pictures show my favorite curly parsley, but other varieties are available. Parsley essential oil is pressed from leaves and seeds and used in applications from herbal salves to shampoos. And of course parsley still freshens the breath and settles the stomach as just as it did at Roman banquets.


Comments and corrections welcome

Archemorus 2007. Greek Myth Index. link 
Culpeper, N. 1812. Parsley. Culpeper's Complete Herbal and The English Physician online Culpeper's original publication was 1653 (Culpeper bio)
O'Hanlon, D.P. translator. 1981. Macer's "Virtues of Herbs' Hemkunt Press, New Delhi.
Rich, V. A. 1998. Cursing the Basil and Other Folklore of the Garden. Horsdahl and Schubart, Victoria, British Columbia, Canada.
The Four Seasons of the House of Cerruti, J. Spencer, translator. Facts on File Publications, New York (14th century version of the Tacunium Sanitatis)
Vickery, R. 1995. Oxford Dictionary of Plant-Lore. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
Zevin, I V. 1997. A Russian Herbal. Healing Arts Press, Rochester, VT

More on parsley (My reading led to slightly different interpretations; of course I like mine better).
The Epicentre  link
Our Herb Garden link
The Herb Information Site link

Kathy Keeler, A Wandering Botanist
You can find similar stories in Curious Stories of Familiar Plants from Around the World, available from Amazon link

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