Parsley for Cooks, Pollinators, and Heroes

Parsley is not merely a garnish. Besides its wide-ranging multicultural culinary uses, it has, like many culinary herbs, significant nutritional and medicinal values and important roles in the garden. And in Ancient Greece, parsley was used to crown heroes. Every part of the plant is useful.

         Parsley (Petroselinum crispum) is an attractive, very cold-hardy biennial herb in the Apiaceae (bee-flower) family. It is available in flat-leaf and curled-leaf forms, both of which have rich, glossy green serrated leaves on slender stalks. In the first year, parsley continually produces a mass of foliage, which can be freely harvested as needed. Parsley usually survives our winters, and begins to grow fresh foliage the second spring. As the second summer approaches, it stops producing foliage and sends up 2’ flower stalks, which branch indefinitely, holding many flat lacy clusters of tiny yellow flowers, throughout summer. Then it makes seed, and dies. If permitted, it will self-sow and perpetuate your parsley patch forever. If you dig up your plant at the end of the first summer, then you lose the tiny yellow flowers, containing loads of nutritious nectar, that are highly attractive to honeybees, other pollinators (many species of bees and butterflies) and beneficial insects, such as Hover Flies, whose larvae eat aphids and thrips. Like many members of its family, parsley is an essential host plant for swallowtail butterfly caterpillars, so grow enough to feed them, too.

          Parsley is also beneficial as a ‘companion’ plant. It is said to increase the fragrance and essential oils of roses growing near it, and to benefit the growth of chives, peppers, tomatoes, carrots and especially asparagus. Avoid planting it near mints and lettuce.

          Medicinally, parsley leaves, seeds and root have been used for centuries. It has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant values for relieving stomach problems and rheumatoid arthritis. It is said to inhibit tumor formation, increase circulation and help dissolve kidney stones. Commercial parsley essential oils can be very strong and should be used with caution. Parsley is very high in Vitamin K and rich in vitamins A, C and iron. It is not only nutritious and delicious, but chewing a few fresh leaves is enough to cleanse your breath of garlic or onion odor.

         For culinary use, curled-leaf parsley is tasty, but has a milder flavor and stiffer texture than flat-leaf, and is the ever-perky type used to garnish a platter. Varieties include: Triple Curled, Forest Green, Pagoda and Frisca.  But the Italian, flat-leaf type is preferred for cooking and drying. It is commonly used in soups, stews, pesto and curries, and I love it in salads with tomatoes. Varieties include: Giant of Italy, Wild Parsley, Italian Dark Green and Survivor. My wife, Eve, makes one of my favorite summer foods: Quinoa Tabbouleh, with lots of parsley. (see the recipe below). She also sprinkles it fresh over bowls of her Greek Egg-Lemon Soup. Yum!! And a sprinkling of fresh parsley over boiled potatoes, elevates them above bachelor-fare. And parsley pesto is a delicious, vitamin-packed sauce or condiment. Hundreds of years ago, parsley varieties were selected and bred for thick, carrot-like roots, which give parsley flavor to soups, etc., and are known as Hamburg parsley, or Parsley Root. The book ‘Parsley Greats’ offers 100 tasty recipes using parsley.

         Parsley is easy to grow in full or part sun in most soils, but it does prefer composted soil, watered once or twice a week. Parsley even does well in containers that can be brought indoors in the winter, where it likes a cool, sunny location and some misting. It over-winters outdoors in the ground and can be mulched with straw or leaves to be harvested through most winters.

         The gardener must be patient to plant parsley from seed, as it is slow to germinate. It helps to soak the seed in water overnight just before sowing in early spring, 8-10 weeks before the last frost. It can be sown in the ground, or indoors in pots. Parsley seedlings should be hardened-off and planted out when they are 2” tall.

         Parsley is native to the Mediterranean region, and both wild and garden forms were known to the ancient Greeks. Heroes of the Olympic Games were crowned with olive, but for 450 years, winners of other athletic games were crowned with parsley. It was used in cooking in England before the Norman Conquest, and was brought over to America on the Mayflower.

         We should all be growing and using more parsley, even if it does get caught in our teeth.

Byline: Mikl and Eve Brawner are co-owners of Harlequin’s Gardens nursery specializing in organic veggie and herb starts, pollinator-friendly, neonic-free plants, hardy roses and xeriscape.