Plant of the Month – Parsley

Jan 10, 2016 | Food, Growing Tips

Article & Photos by Jan Koehler, SCMG

Scientific Name: Petroselinum sp.
Other Common Name: Curly or curly leaf parsley (P. crispum), Flat leaf or Italian parsley (P.neapolitanum), Hamburg parsley (P. tuberosum)
Type: Annual/biennial herb
Family: Apiaceae (Carrot family)
Native Range: Mediterranean region of Southern Europe
Height: 8-14” to 2-3’ depending on variety
Spread: 10-12” dense clumps
Sun: Full sun to part shade
Water: Medium
Maintenance: Medium
Suggested Use: Herb garden, kitchen garden, container garden, borders
Leaf: Edible as are the seeds/stem/roots (particularly the Hamburg variety)
Attracts: Butterflies

Parsley is the world’s most popular herb. Native to the Mediterranean region of Southern Europe, parsley has been cultivated for more than 2,000 years having been used medicinally prior to being consumed as a food. It derives its name from the Greek word meaning “rock celery”. This herb was sacred to ancient Greeks who used it to crown the victors with chaplets of Parsley at the Isthmian games, and made it into wreaths for adorning the tombs of their deceased. It supposedly sprung from the blood of a Greek hero, Archemorus, who was the forerunner of death.  Homer wrote that chariot horses were fed the leaves by warriors. Ancient Greek gardens were often bordered with Parsley and Rue.

The practice of using parsley as a garnish was never used by the Greeks, but actually has a long history that can be traced back to the civilization of the ancient Romans. While it is uncertain when parsley began to be consumed as a seasoning, it is believed to have started during the Middle Ages in Europe. Some historians credit Charlemagne with its popularization since he had it grown on his estates.

Although there are more than 30 varieties of parley, several are the more commonly used and cultivated. The most common variety is common or curly parsley, Petroselinium crispum. Of this variety, there are no less than 37 variations; the most valuable are those of a compact habit with close, perfectly curled leaves and typically grow 8-14 inches tall, forming dense clumps which are great for borders, inter-planting in the garden beds, and indoor or outdoor containers. P. crispum  is more pungent than the flat-leaf Italian parsley, P. neapolitanum, which is another popular variety. This plant can grow quite tall (2-3 ft) and is more gangly in habit. The flat serrated leaves have a much stronger and sweeter flavor than the other varieties, making it more desirable for cooking.  Dried parsley of either variety has minimal flavor if any.   The variety known as Hamburg parsley, P. tuberosum, is mainly grown for its white, fleshy, parsnip-like roots, used in flavoring soups. This variety is a relatively new species, having only been developed within the past two hundred years and has only recently begun gaining popularity.  Tall, fern-like leaves make up the foliage.  Japanese parsley, which is actually another species, Cryptotaenia japonica, resembles the Italian parsley but is not commonly grown. It has a more bitter taste and is sometimes used in Asian cooking.

As with most herbs, parsley does best in a sunny area which receives direct light for 6-8 hours a day, although it can tolerate some light shade especially in our intense afternoon desert sun. Plants will be more productive if grown in well drained soil that is fairly rich in organic matter, with a pH range of 6.0-7.0 making container cultivation ideal in this part of New Mexico.

Although germination is notoriously slow, seed propagation is the easiest way to start plants. The rate of germination is dependent upon seed freshness, ranging from 2-5 weeks. To help hasten the process, soak the seeds in warm water for up to twenty-four hours prior to planting. For a continuous supply, three sowings should be made: as early in February as the weather permits and may take up to a month to germinate, in April or early May germination may be quicker and provides usable cut herbs throughout the summer, and in July and early August in a sheltered position, with a southern exposure for a winter supply.

Seeds can be started indoors in the late winter approximately 6-8 weeks ahead of the last frost date. Seeds can also be sown directly in the ground where they are to be grown, after danger of spring frosts has passed. Cover seeds with 1/8 inch of soil, and keep them moist. Since germination is so slow, it’s a good idea to mark the rows. Emerging seedlings will appear almost grass-like, with two narrow seed leaves opposite each other. Thin or transplant seedlings when they are 2-3 inches high. Final spacing should be 10-12 inches apart.

Plants should not be allowed to dry out completely between watering if they were sown directly into the garden. Watering deeply at least once a week insures the roots are receiving enough moisture during the growing season. A light mulch of ground up leaves or grass clippings helps retain moisture and also keeps weeds to a minimum.

It is advisable to fertilize plants in garden beds once or twice during the growing season, using a 5-10-5 commercial fertilizer at a rate of 3 oz per 10 feet of row. A liquid fertilizer should be used at one half the label recommended strength every 3-4 weeks for container grown plants outside and every 4-6 weeks for parsley grown indoors.

Parsley is an easy herb to grow indoors as long as it has a bright location and holes in the bottom of the pot to insure good drainage. The plants may be a bit spindly when grown indoor which is due to lower light levels.

Harvest parsley with bright green leaves that show no sign of wilting by snipping off the stalks close to the ground, beginning with the outside stalks. New growth will be encouraged throughout the growing season if pruned in this fashion. If only the tops are cut off and the leaf stalks remain, the plant will be less productive. If the growth becomes coarse outside in the summer, cut off all the leaves and water well. This will induce a new growth of fine leaves, and may always be done when the plants have matured, as it encourages a stocky growth.

Fresh parsley has the best quality and best flavor. It should be rinsed and wrapped in a paper towel and then a plastic bag. Refrigerated it will last for a week.  Although parsley can be dried or frozen, much flavor is lost. Plants remain green and productive into fall and can usually handle light frosts especially in protected areas. Leave the plants in place after the foliage has been killed by frost, and they may sprout again in spring, depending on winter conditions. Then you may again harvest fresh parsley until the plant sends up a seed stalk and dies, having completed its biennial lifecycle. However, the taste of this second year parsley will be bitterer than the previous season’s harvest.

Dry the leaves by spreading them on a screen or hanging them upside down in bunches in a warm, well-ventilated room out of direct light. For quick drying, dry the leaves in a slow oven at 100-110°F for just a few minutes. Store the dried leaves ground or whole in an air-tight container away from heat sources or bright light. Fresh parsley can also be frozen in small bags in the freezer. Parsley preserved by either method should be used within a year’s time.

Parsley beyond the culinary uses
Parsley has many uses beyond the culinary or plate garnish. Chewing fresh parsley will help with bad breath from other food odors such as garlic. Parsley has nutritive value as it is high Vitamins K, C, A, folate and iron. Parsley has long been known for its diuretic properties.  Parsley tea is found in many a “natural medicine” aisle in grocery stores/health food stores.  For all the interesting uses of parsley to numerous to list, there does , however, exist a cautionary note as parsley is among a small number of foods that contain measurable amounts of oxalates, naturally-occurring substances found in plants, animals, and human beings. When oxalates become too concentrated in body fluids, they can crystallize and cause health problems. For this reason, individuals with already existing and untreated kidney or gallbladder problems may want to avoid eating parsley.

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