Both the curly leaf form (Petroselinium crispum) and the Italian flat-leaf form (P. neapolitanum) of this useful herb are members of the carrot family Apiaceae, and share a close botanical relationship to their cousin the parsnip (although the similarity in names is coincidental). As with most other members of this family, parsley grows feathery, deep-green foliage above a long taproot, and eventually flowers in its second year, sending up a tall umbel of white blooms that set masses of small, oily seeds.
A third, less familiar variety of parsley is known as Hamburg parsley (P. crispum var. tuberosum) and is grown for its thick white taproot. Its leaves can also be used, but their flavour is far more intense — to the point of being too much for many palates. The roots, though, are a common ingredient in soup and stew recipes from Eastern Europe.
Parsley has a rich cultural history with many references dating from ancient Greece and Rome. Although it seems to be native to the Mediterranean region, there is some confusion about its exact origin. Many different, closely related plants may have been called parsley. The ancient Greeks celebrated their athletes with wreathes of parsley, but the herb was also associated with death and oblivion, so it rarely brought to the dinner table. Parsley was even used to hide the odour of corpses. In the Medieval period, many superstitions surrounded the herb, including the notion that its slow germination was due to the seed traveling to hell and back seven times. Deeply superstitious farmers would not grow it. However, in the Hebrew celebration of Passover, parsley is used as a symbol of spring and rebirth.
In recent decades, the main North American use for curly parsley has been as a boring garnish in restaurants, not really meant for eating. But it is a richly flavoured, useful herb that enjoys a more central role in many dishes from southern Europe and the Middle East. It is chopped with garlic and lemon zest to form gremolata, a topping for stews in Italy. In France, it is just mixed with chopped garlic to create persillade, a tangy paste that is makes a beautiful topping for fresh oysters. It’s also an essential element (with thyme, marjoram, and bay) of the herb combination known as Bouquet Garni. Parsley is the main ingredient of Lebanon’s national dish, tabbouleh — mixed with bulgar, tomato, mint, scallions, lemon and olive oil… Yum!
Flat-leaf parsley may be more commonly associated as an ingredient in dishes than beside them. Like lovage, some chopped parsley adds both colour and flavour to soups and sauces, and the herb complements fish and poultry particularly well.
Regardless of the type, parsley is very popular as a companion plant. Predatory wasps and other beneficial insects are attracted to its scent and flowers. Where tomato hornworm is a problem (not here in south-coastal BC), it is often inter-planted with tomato rows to attract the wasps that feed on hornworms.
If it is crushed and rubbed on the skin, parsley may help to reduce the itching from mosquito bites. The notion that chewing parsley neutralizes the effect of garlic on one’s breath appears to be a myth. At least, it’s no more effective than chewing anything else. Eaten raw, parsley contains significantly high levels of vitamins K, C, and folate, and it’s a very good source of the minerals potassium, phosphorus, zinc, and iron. When parsley is added to the compost, it carries these minerals with it, enriching future soil. It appears that eating parsley increases the body’s uptake of manganese, which helps to build strong bones. This effect is enhanced if parsley is consumed with shellfish and other foods that are rich in copper and zinc.
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