Parsley’s Latin name originates with the Greek petros and selinon, meaning “rock” and “celery” respectively. The biennial herb was given this name since it likes to grow in rocky locations. With an equal love of well-drained or moist soil and tolerance for full sun or part shade, this commonplace addition to your kitchen arsenal is a versatile and hardy plant.
As a biennial, parsley comes up in its first year with foliage in full splendor, then it quietly overwinters and flowers the following season. A member of the Apiaceae family alongside dill, fennel, and lovage, parsley’s flowers are beautiful yellow umbels. The foliage in the first year forms a lush rosette which is often what you’ll find in the grocery store. In the second year, when it flowers, the foliage is sparse and elongated.
But despite its versatility and hardiness, parsley is notoriously difficult to grow from seed. I generally recommend that people soak their seeds overnight in lukewarm water to aid in germination. While parsley can sometimes take anywhere from one to six weeks to germinate, the soaking still helps speed up the process.
The cause for this difficult germination is thought to be chemicals contained in parsley known as furamocoumarins. This substance acts as an inhibitor, keeping weeds from germinating close to the parsley plant. However, it may also interfere with the plants own seed germination. Soaking or washing the seeds helps to release the concentration of this chemical while simultaneously breaking down the seed’s coat and accelerating germination.
I recently discovered some interesting stories about this ubiquitous garnish. In ancient Greek, parsley was associated with death. Wreaths of parsley were laid on tombs and the expression “to need only parsley” meant to have one foot in the grave. The Romans dedicated the herb to Persephone—the queen of the underworld—and likewise used it in funeral rites.
In medieval times, it was believed that if virgins planted parsley they would be visited by the Devil, and superstition dictated that men were only supposed to plant it on Good Friday. It was further thought that parsley was so slow to germinate because the seeds had to travel to hell and back before they could grow.
Long before these superstitions, parsley was not used as a culinary herb, but more often as livestock fodder. It was occasionally confused with the poisonous fool’s parsley (Aethusa cynapium), a weedy lookalike, leading to an association with mortality that didn’t help the plant’s popularity. Only in the Middle Ages did it become an addition to the dinner table.
For the modern gardener, such devilish concerns aren’t likely on the radar, but which type to plant may be. Flat leaf parsley is easier to grow than curly parsley and, in my opinion, has a more robust flavor. Parsley’s stem also has a wonderful flavor, so incorporate pieces into dishes or add them to stock to improve its flavor.
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