In Praise of Parsley

By Shirley Barker Special to the Planet
Thursday October 16, 2008 - 09:54:00 AM

If I could choose only one green leafy vegetable to eat for the rest of my life, it would be parsley. I almost put my money on the versatile cabbage, delicious raw or cooked, stuffed, grated and even fried, but for sheer flavor, and ease and speed of growth, parsley edged cabbage by a nose. 

Ease and speed of growth? I had not tried to grow parsley until this month, because all my gardening books said that parsley seed has to go to the devil and back before it will germinate. One could try soaking the seed for 24 hours before sowing, and then it might take four weeks, accompanied by prayer. This seemed a long time to spend on one’s knees, so I bought plants. Even these were balky, never doing well. 

It was not until I came across Patrick Bowe’s book The Complete Kitchen Garden that illumination arrived. This book advocates growing vegetables with an eye to their overall appearance—color, texture and so forth. Although this results in Byzantine, even dotty suggestions, such as harvesting one’s vegetables according to their color (so as not to spoil the overall pattern), Bowe has one stupendous idea for a rotation plan. 

First, a word about rotation. Rotating plants is critical for healthy vegetables. The home grower gardens intensively, in raised beds (even a slight elevation, says Bowe, quoting UC Davis research, is the equivalent of moving 30 miles south), which are narrow, three to five feet, so that they are never trodden upon. Even though these beds ideally are constantly enriched with organic matter, manure, compost, and hay, growing the same vegetable in the same bed year after year causes disease to build up. Soon the tomatoes will catch a virus and fail to produce (not that they ever do well in my garden), the brassicas will develop clubroot, eel worms will run rampant, and so forth. 

So a three- to five- or even seven-year rotation plan is critical for the health of all vegetables except disease-free peas and beans. Bowe’s idea is to group vegetables according to their families. Thus all the members of the Solanaceae family for example, the tomatoes, potatoes, eggplants and peppers, are grown in the same bed one year, planted en famille in a different bed the following year, and so on, until they return to their original bed after a gap of several years. Brilliant! 

This rotation plan by plant families greatly simplifies life for the gardener, for it is always a complex exercise to decide what to grow, when, and where, in our almost year-round, half cool, half warm growing climate. 

This turned my thoughts to my parsley, which, if it ever grew, I was going to put in a bed of herbs. But parsley is an umbel, in the family Umbelliferae, as are celery and carrots. Carrots were already up in a newly prepared bed with plenty of extra space, and since I had just sown celery seeds in a container, waiting for the cool weather they like, this would be my umbel bed. Celery also likes wet feet, it is a marsh plant, so its container of tiny seeds was set in a saucer of water. I knew they would take two weeks to germinate. 

But how could I persuade the parsley seeds to germinate? I had plenty of fresh seed from a plant that had flowered during the summer. I knew that moisture is one of the major agents in breaking the dormancy of seeds, whose embryos are protected effectively with a tough outer skin. Might parsley be so closely related to celery that its seeds too would prefer constant moisture? I sowed the seed accordingly, placing the pot in a tray of water. In less than two weeks up came seedlings, sturdier than their cousin celery, growing rampantly almost before my eyes. Far from devilish, these looked like little miracles. 

Small wonder that parsley has naturalized in the British Isles. Now I know I can grow a constant supply of it, unlike the cabbage, which takes months to mature, and while both are rich in vitamin C, parsley provides other vitamins, and minerals too, so parsley must take the prize. 

Many umbels are biennials, producing seed in their second year. The flower heads do look like umbrellas (the name derives from the Latin for parasol), with spokes radiating from the stems. Other edible umbels include parsnips, lovage, chervil, dill, sweet cicely, Florence fennel and angelica, cumin, and coriander, whose green leaves we call cilantro. As indicated by its simple ending, Umbelliferae was one of the first flowering plant families to be recognized by 16th-century botanists. 

Botanists call umbels promiscuous, for they are pollinated by a variety of insects. Like most flowering plants they outdo birds and bees in reproductive invention, for geitonogamy can occur, in which a flower is pollinated by a neighbor on the same umbel. 

The Indian spice asafetida is an umbel, as is poison hemlock. Rodale’s Herb Book tells us that Pliny found parsley of paramount importance in medicine. It is now considered a diuretic, probably with health-protective properties. Ancient Greeks fed it to race  

horses and wove it into the results: victory garlands. It is slow to grow, says Rodale, and dislikes being moved. 

I too prefer a slow life in one spot and am willing to spend time on my knees now, gently weeding around these amazing plants. However, one does not wish to go to extremes, like the parsley seed of myth. As part of my rotation plan I will include a bed of the family Brassicaceae, growing collards, turnips, radishes, and above all, the one that was only just pipped at the post, the cabbage.