Celery (Apium graveolens), a marshland plant in the family Apiaceae. First attested in English in 1664, the word “celery” derives from the French céleri, in turn from Italian seleri, the plural of selero, which comes from Late Latin selinon, the latinisation of the Greek σέλινον (selinon), “celery”.
Celery has a long, fibrous stalk tapering into leaves. Depending on the location and cultivar, either the vegetable’s stalks or leaves are eaten and used in cooking. Celery seed is also used as a spice, its extracts are used in medicines.
Most experts believe that celery originated in the Mediterranean basin. Other areas that lay claim to nativity for celery include Sweden, the British Isles, Egypt, Algeria, India, China, and New Zealand. Though today it is mainly thought of as a vegetable meant for consumption, celery was originally used for medicinal purposes, as a flavoring herb, and sometimes fed to horses. It has medicinal properties because of the oils and seeds it contains. In ancient times it was used to treat many ailments, including colds, flu, digestion, water retention, and more.
Celery leaves were part of the garlands found in the tomb of pharaoh Tutankhamen (died 1323 BC), and celery mericarps dated to the seventh century BC were recovered in the Heraion of Samos. Archeological digs found celery dating to the 9th century BC, at Kastanas. However, the literary evidence for celery’s use in ancient Greece is more telling: in Homer’s Illiad, horses graze on wild celery that grows in the marshes of Troy, and in Odyssey, there is a mention of the meadows of violet and wild celery surrounding the cave of Calypso. A chthonian symbol among the ancient Greeks, celery was said to have sprouted from the blood of Kadmilos. The spicy odour and dark leaf colour encouraged this association with the cult of death. In classical Greece, celery leaves were used as garlands for the dead.
Celery’s late arrival in the English kitchen is an end-product of the long tradition of seed selection needed to reduce the sap’s bitterness and increase its sugars. By 1699, John Evelyn could recommend it in his Acetaria. A Discourse of Sallets. Celery makes a minor appearance in colonial American gardens; its culinary limitations are reflected in the observation by the author of A Treatise on Gardening, by a Citizen of Virginia that it is “one of the species of parsley”. In fact the name for parsley actually means rock-celery. After the mid-19th century, continued selections for refined crisp texture and taste brought celery to American kitchens, where it was served in celery vases to be salted and eaten raw.
In Europe it was not until the 1600s in France that celery was first noted as an edible plant meant for consumption. Soon the Italians began using celery the way we use it in modern times. They set out to find a way to give it a more desirable flavor because celery was thought to be quite bitter and strong. A technique was developed to remedy this stronger taste in the form of blanching. This led to two different types of celery developing. There is self-blanching or yellow celery (a recent hybrid) and green or Pascal celery. In America most people prefer the green variety. In Europe self-blanching varieties are more popular.
In the past, celery was grown as a vegetable for winter and early spring; it was perceived as a cleansing tonic, welcomed to counter the salt-sickness of a winter diet without greens based on salted meats. By the 19th century, the season for celery had been extended, to last from the beginning of September to late in April.
In the 1850s celery seed was brought to Kalamazoo, Michigan from Scotland by George Taylor. He began growing it at a nearby farm. At a fancy ball at the Burdick House he offered it free of charge to be on the serving table. It got considerable interest. Dutch immigrants in the area caught on to the idea, and Kalamazoo became the “Celery Capital” of the nation. However, this was not to last. Celery production died out after a blight hit the area in the 1930s. Now the biggest producer of celery in the nation is California.
To grow your own celery: start seeds off indoors in small modules in early spring, March is a good time. Give them a lot of heat and keep moist for germination. Mine are in the warmest, sunniest room in the house – they get put on the windowsill during daylight hours before being ‘snuggled’, put back on the floor in the heated room for the chilly nights. I will then be moving my celery to a colder room to begin the process of hardening them off (i.e. making them tougher and able to withstand the British weather) once they are looking strong with some proper leaves developed. Plant outside, 25cm apart, in May or June, after the frosts if you can. Celery likes a moisture retentive, well-drained soil in a sunny location. I prepare the bed for them by digging a trench, filling it with well-rotted manure and compost before covering it with soil and a good thick layer of mulch – it will help to hold onto the water and suppress the weeds. I often prepare this in early spring/winter, giving the worms time to do their work below before planting the little babies out. Once I have planned them out, I like to place plastic bottles with their bottoms cut off over each individual plant before covering them with horticultural fleece, making sure they are slug protected, very important! The bottles protect the celery from cold, wind and being squashed; the fleece protects them from strong sunlight, cold, and again wind which is no friend to the plastic bottles. Keep the celery well watered and slug protected and weed free as much as possible. Once they look big and strong enough to stand the world on their own and the frosts have vanished, remove their protection and let them fend for themselves.
Self-blanching varieties avoid the need to be earthed up like the older varieties of celery. Recommended are ‘Golden Self Blanching’, ‘Daybreak’ and ‘Green Utah’. I have tried growing before now ‘Galaxy’ and ‘Green Sleeves’. Very tasty although you will have to de-string them if you are feeling fussy about chewy textures!
Try to harvest before the frosts, when the sticks are recognisably big, from around August. However, we have managed to leave our celery (when we had pretty much a whole fields worth a couple of years ago thanks to my over-generous sowings and surprisingly successful germinations and survivals) under fleece throughout the winter. They did go to seed the following spring but it meant that a steady harvest for us/pigs saw us through the winter- although I think I put a lot of my family off celery… similar to the runner-bean situation that occurs yearly…
Problems with celery: slugs and snails are your ultimate competition. Starting them off indoors not only increases the likelihood of germination but it also helps to protect them from these pests. Celery fly maggots can strike in April, planting them out in May avoids this. The problem I had last year was celery blight. It looks like rust, similar looking to potato blight. The outer stems get these nasty brown patterns that eventually droop and become inedible. It also prevents the plant from ever developing to a proper size, so my harvest was very poor last year. There is nothing you can do but to snap off the outer stems infected to slow down the spread of the disease and to harvest them as small treats instead of large, supermarket-style vegetables.
Celery is among a small group of foods (headed by peanuts) that appear to provoke the most severe allergic reactions; for people with celery allergy, exposure can cause potentially fatal anaphylactic shock. Seeds contain the highest levels of allergen content.
Celery is a rich source of phenolic phytonutrients that have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Celery is an excellent source of vitamin K and molybdenum. It is a very good source of folate, potassium, dietary fiber, manganese and pantothenic acid. Celery is also a good source of vitamin B2, copper, vitamin C, vitamin B6, calcium, phosphorus, magnesium and vitamin A. Celery supposedly: helps lower blood cholesterol, lowers inflammation, lowers blood pressure, prevents ulcers, sustains liver health, boosts digestion and reduces bloating, prevents urinary tract infections and may help in preventing cancer. Altogether, a very good veggie!
I mostly eat my celery raw – homegrown it can be stringy but once prepared by being sliced in sticks it is deliciously sweet and juicy. Serve with any other salad, Waldorf Salad is popular in the US (celery, apple and walnuts, I think?). My mum used to have raw celery sticks dipped in salt. Use for dips like humous. I think it is yummy dipped in baked potatoes that have been mashed with salted butter. It is also delicious stir fried after being sliced into small pieces – a whole new taste, it is one of my favourite veggies to stir fry, along with broccoli stalks and sweetcorn, I don’t know why, they are just yummy too! Celery can also be boiled, steamed or roasted along with some carrots and parsnips to accompany your roast dinner. It is fundamental in my dad’s homemade Christmas stuffing alone with pear or apple. Very good in stocks, especially the leaves. It can easily be added to stews and casseroles too, perhaps even curries. Someone I know once said that veggie bolognese was nothing without celery – I am not sure I agree, I prefer grated carrots in mine but why not give it a go?!
Fun fact: The perennial BBC television series Doctor Who featured the Fifth Doctor (played by Peter Davison, from 1981–84), who wore a sprig of celery as a corsage.