Celery (Apium graveolens)
Smallage (the original wild plant), Celeriac
About This Plant
Celery is technically an herb, not a vegetable, belonging to the Apiaceae family with cousins of Coriander, Parsley, Fennel, and Carrots. It is a biennial, though normally grown as an annual. Its Latin name, “Apium” comes from the Celtic “apon”, meaning water, and “graviolens” meaning “strong smelling”. Celery has a reputation as a fickle plant to grow, but once you understand what exactly it needs to thrive, you’ll find the task much easier. Most would agree that garden-grown celery is better tasting than store-bought, and less chemically-laden.
Today, there are basically three varieties of Celery available: Green Celery or Smallage, whose aromatic leaves are used fresh or dried as a herbal seasoning or as a celery salt; Celery Root or Celeriac, used especially in soups in France and central Europe; and stalk Celery with typically swollen, crispy, mild stems that were first cultivated by Italian master gardeners in the 17th century mainly as a seasoning or as a medicine. Gardeners in 18th century France, England, and Germany are credited with mitigating Celery’s strong flavor to make it more palatable as an everyday vegetable. Wild Celery has thin stalks and a bitter flavor. Farmers bred Celery to have sturdy ribs and a sweeter profile.
While most people are familiar with Celery, not many people realize the important role it played in Greek and Roman society, and how it was closely associated with both victory and death. It used to be a very different Celery, Wild Celery, with its strong smell and dark color. It struck the ancient Greeks as something sprouting from the Underworld and decorated funerals and the dead with it. The most potent way to show love for the fallen was a wreath of Celery. The Roman Pliny the Elder and others considered Celery off-limits as an everyday food because of this association. Victors were also awarded crowns of Celery as a symbol of their strength and fortitude. Ancient Egyptian mummies were also often decorated with Celery and Blue Lotus blossoms.
Celery seeds are slow to germinate and grow. Indoor sowings should be made a full 10-12 weeks prior to the last frost, perhaps even earlier, and then transplanted to a cold frame to harden off. If you live in a warmer climate and are planning a winter crop, seeds should be started 10 to 12 weeks before the first Autumn frost date. Seeds are tiny so sow with care and avoid planting seeds in clumps. Soaking seeds in warm water overnight prior to planting will speed germination. Seeds should be pressed into soil mix but not covered. The seed tray may be covered with plastic wrap to retain moisture. Germination may take three weeks. As soon as seedlings appear, place a grow light three inches above them for 16 hours a day, allowing them eight hours of darkness. Maintain a temperature of 70-75 degrees Fahrenheit and mist regularly.
When seedlings are two inches tall, transplant them to individual seed pots, being careful not to break the taproot as that could prove fatal. Begin acclimating Celery to the outdoors two weeks before planting. Leave your plants outside for progressively longer each day, taking care to bring them back under cover if frost threatens. Plant outdoors when the soil temperature reaches at least 50 degrees and nighttime temperatures don’t dip down below 40. Cold weather can cause the plants to bolt. Work compost into the soil prior to planting and keep a light mulch around plants. Don’t let the soil dry out Plants should be spaced 12 inches apart.
The ancestors of modern Celery come from the marshes of western Europe and northern Africa, so not surprisingly, celery still needs moist soil, rich in nutrients (such as aged manure), plus plenty of water to ensure a good harvest. Celery is considered a cold-hardy biennial, though it is grown as an annual. It suffers in too much heat and requires 16 weeks of cool weather to come to harvest. In the high north, like Alaska, it should be a Summer crop. In hot, humid areas, it makes a perfect winter crop. For places in between, it is an ideal Fall crop. Temperatures below 50 degrees Fahrenheit for more than 12 days may cause the plants to bolt. Celery can tolerate a light frost, but not consecutive frosts. Full, direct sunlight is needed to ensure good, even growth
Plants should be spaced 12 inches apart. Planting any closer than that will give you a higher yield, but more slender stalks. Celery requires lots of water, so provide plenty during the entire growing season especially during hot, dry weather. Without adequate water, stalks will become dry and small. Adding plenty of mulch around plants will help retain moisture. Keep plants weed-free. Celery roots are limited, usually stretching just six to eight inches away from the plant and only two to three inches deep, so the top part of the soil not only has to have enough moisture for the plant, but it must also contain all the nutrients needed as well. Side-dressing the plants mid-season with aged compost is recommended.
Growing Celery stalks can be tied together to keep them from sprawling. Once the stalks are at least six inches tall (from the bottom to the first leaf) they are ready to eat. Outer stalks tend to be greener and stronger in flavor (especially if they haven’t been blanched – read more on that below) while inner stalks tend to be lighter in color and sweeter. Plants can be harvested whole, but cutting or picking individual stems as needed with keep the plant producing over a longer period. Plants can be harvested from Summer through the Autumn until the first hard frost stops growth. Celery stores well in a cool, dry place.
The darker the stalks become, the more nutrients they will contain. Darker stalks will also be tougher in texture and more bitter in flavor. To prevent this darkening from happening, Celery can be “blanched”. What this means is that sunlight is prevented from hitting the outer stalks in the last 10-14 days before harvesting. This can be done by pulling soil up against the bottom half of the stalks. Straw may also be used or paper cylinders. By keeping sunlight from reaching the bottom half of the stalks, the Celery will produce a white, less bitter, and slightly less nutrient-dense stalk. Celery that sits too long after blanching will become pithy and may rot.
When the flower heads are dry and the seeds are dark and hard, seeds are ready to be harvested. Simply bend the flower head over into a bag or container and shake.
- Health promotion
Celery is useful in the kitchen, both fresh or cooked, for stews, stir-frys, soups, and salads. It has a crisp, tasty crunch and is high in Vitamin K, A, folate, and potassium. Celery forms ⅓ of the “Holy Trinity” of Cajun and Creole cooking, which also includes green bell peppers and onion.
Celery is considered a powerful anti-inflammatory food and has been granted the fame of a celebrity-fueled detox drink. Clery is said to alkalize the gut and to be high in bioactive micro trace mineral salts which are said to help flush toxins from the body.
Super-food hysteria aside, celery has been used for millennia for medicinal purposes. Aulus Cornelius Celsus wrote in AD 30 that celery seeds could relieve pain. Celery seeds have been used widely in Eastern herbal traditions such as Ayurveda. Celery is said to help digestion and to have diuretic properties, and be good for diabetes, gout, and rheumatism. One source states that when it comes to celery, think “electrolytes”–it nourishes the body on a deep cellular level.
Wild celery grows endemically on the coasts of Europe, western Asia, and northern Africa, as well as inland wherever there is moist soil. The wild plant, however, has become nearly extinct due to the building of drainage trenches, intensive agriculture, and the building of dykes. Gardeners in 18th century France, England, and Germany are credited with mitigating Celery’s strong flavor to make it more palatable as an everyday vegetable.