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Parsley

Are you going to your County Fair, parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme?

I was researching some information for this article, which I thought was going to be about medicinal herbs in the garden. At the same time I was realizing that it is county fair time when this song popped into my head and the subject of this article became clearer. For about a week now I have been wondering, not just wondering like I didn't know about it, but wondering like I was in wonder of the medicinal and health benefits that I had been learning about parsley. Why not do an entire article on parsley and get it off the edge of the plate and into our bodies? I really like it when something as ordinary as parsley or marigolds (see my article on marigolds) turn out to have amazing health enriching properties.

It all started when the Richters' herb catalog came in the mail. The catalog boasts over 800 varieties of culinary, medicinal, aromatic and ornamental herbs. It is truly encyclopedic and inspirational. So I'm dissecting my way through the catalog, pen, pad and highlighter in hand when I come to parsley. I wondered what parsley was doing in a medicinal herb catalog. The description didn't mention medicinal use but it did say that it stimulated the appetite. Something about this made me curious so I looked it up in an old herb book I have. I was pretty amazed at what I found.

Tagetes erecta
petroselinum crispum
(click for larger image)

Parsley, Petroselinum crispum is a member of the Umbelliferae Family along with dill, caraway, fennel, angelica, lovage, cilantro, carrot, parsnip, celery and coriander. All have hollow stems and flowers in a flat-topped cluster called an umbel. In other words the flower is umbrella shaped. It is indigenous to Sardinia, Turkey, Algeria and Lebanon where it grows wild. The English introduced it to the world after getting it from the Romans who got it from the Greeks.

The Ancient Greeks thought that Hercules used a garland of parsley so they would crown the winners of games and war with garlands of parsley in honor of the great feats of Hercules. Greek soldiers fed parsley to their horses so they would run better. It is associated with the hero god Archemorous, the herald of death. It is said that parsley sprang up where his blood drenched the ground after serpents devoured him. Later it became associated with Persephone who guided the souls of the dead to the underworld and was used to decorate the tombs and graves of the dead, in hopes of pleasing her. Later, Christians replaced Persephone with St. Peter, but maintained the connection between parsley and guidance of the soul. Parsley can take 2-4 weeks to start from seed. An old folk legend explains that parsley has to go to Hades and back 9 times before it will germinate.

For the Romans too, parsley represents both death and evil as well as protection and purification. The Romans would tuck sprigs of parsley in their togas for protection and may have been the first ones to adorn their plates with said sprigs, only it wasn't for decoration but rather was to protect against food contamination. Parsley garlands were also worn at great banquets. It masked the stronger odors of onion and garlic and was thought to absorb the vapors from wine delaying the onset of inebriation.

Medicinally, parsley is good for the lungs, stomach, bladder and liver. All parts of the plant are used. The roots contain essential oils and mucilage; the seeds are especially strong in essential oils and terpenes. The leaves contain lesser amounts of essential oils as well as lots of vitamin A and C, more vitamin C than oranges. The leaves also contain lots of chlorophyll, which is a great antiseptic and can be used in a poultice to ease the pain of small cuts and bites. Chlorophyll is also a great breath freshener. They are also full of minerals, iron, calcium, potassium, thiamin, niacin and riboflavin.

It has diuretic qualities, flushing the kidneys, helping to stimulate urination when the kidneys are sluggish and acting as a mild laxative. It is a good carminative, which helps the body release cramp-producing gas in the stomach and intestines. It also helps move excess mucous from the body. It can aid the body in expelling tapeworms and other parasites and is used to encourage menstrual flow. In other words parsley gets thing going, it breaks up congestion and keeps things moving along.

There are several varieties of parsley available for the home gardener. All are biennials, producing foliage the first year and flowers producing seeds the second year. But most people grow them as annuals. This is a shame because the flowers are a beautiful chartreuse color that looks great in a bouquet of red or purple flowers.

The flowers also attract the black swallowtail butterfly, Papilia polyenes asterius, sometimes called the Parsley Swallowtail. She is yellow with black markings and a solid black tail. Unfortunately her offspring, caterpillars that are green with a yellow dotted black band across each segment who emit a stink and display orange horns when scared are voracious eaters. They can completely defoliate your parsley. Before you squish them dead think about the beautiful butterfly that could be. Besides, the leaves of second year parsley are tough and bitter and it's going to die as soon as it sets seed so why not let the caterpillars eat them. You can still collect the seed to use for flavoring soups, bread etc. I always let some go in the garden where they readily self-seed. I haven't had to plant parsley in 6 years, since the first plants went to seed and spread themselves through out the garden.

Italian parsley
Italian parsley
(click for larger image)
Italian flat parsley has the best flavor but the curly parsley is really cute. Both make great visual additions to the garden. The Greeks used parsley to edge their herb gardens, possibly because of its protective nature. Many people in the nursery trade are rediscovering parsley's ornamental contribution and it is once again being recommended as a border or edging for flower and vegetable gardens. It only grows 10 or 12 inches tall and forms a nice little hedge when planted 6 or 8 inches apart. Its solid dark green color brings out the colors of flowers planted around it.

Plant some under your fragrant roses and they will be even more edifiers. Tomatoes and asparagus grow better when parsley is around and it attracts bees and butterflies increasing pollination of other fruits and vegetables.

There is also a parsley that is grown for its root rather than its leaf. It goes by the name Hamburg Parsley and Richters herb catalog carries the seed. The root is similar in flavor to the leaf and lends an outstanding flavor to soups and stews. It can also be used raw in salads.

The best way to use parsley, of course, is fresh. You can begin cutting the outside leaves as soon as there are 5 or 6 stems. They can be put in a jar of water and left on the counter where they will stay fresh for a couple days. Or put the jar in the fridge where they should stay fresh up to a week, especially if you change the water. This way the parsley is always there to remind you to add a few leaves to your salad, sandwich, casserole etc.

To store your parsley you have two choices, dry it or freeze it. Using a food dehydrator is probably your best bet. Freezing is also a good option. Chop up a bunch and mix it with some veggie broth and freeze it in an ice cube tray. It can be stored for up to 6 months this way. To use just add a few cubes to your winter soups and stews. To tell you the truth I never worry about storing it because there is always some parsley in the garden.

Parsley; good for your garden and good for you. Shouldn't you have some parsley today?


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