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Definition: celery from Philip's Encyclopedia

Biennial plant, native to the Mediterranean and widely cultivated for its long stalks used as a vegetable. Its fruits are used as food flavouring and in medicine. Family Apiaceae/Umbelliferae; species Apium graveolens.

Summary Article: Celery
from Encyclopedia of Cultivated Plants: From Acacia to Zinnia

Celery, Apium graveolens, bears an edible stalk and is one of the few vegetables for which the whole plant is used in food and medicine. Celery can grow to be up to three feet tall, and the leaves of the plant grow in a conical shape connected at the bottom by a common base. The plant produces small white flowers. The celery plant is related to carrot, fennel, parsley, and dill. Celery is used for all its parts including the ribbed stalks, leaves, seeds, and even the root. The plant is biennial, which means that it takes two years for the plant to mature fully. Celery is so ubiquitous that many nations claim responsibility for being the first to discover and cultivate it including China, India, the United Kingdom, Sweden, and several countries in Africa.


Celery may have originated in the Mediterranean Basin. The ancient forms of celery had fewer stalks and more leaves. It would be hundreds of years before the plant was cultivated as a source of food, but the ancients used the plants in many ritual ceremonies. The Egyptians did not cultivate celery, but they used wild celery in their ceremonies. Garlands were made of celery leaves and water lily petals, and then placed in the tombs. Such garlands were found in 14th-century BCE pharaoh Tutankhamen's tomb during archaeological excavations. While wild celery mostly had ornamental value, it is believed that celery also played a role in Egyptian medicine as treatment for impotence.

While the Egyptians were buried with celery, the Greeks decorated sports heroes with laurels made of celery leaves. They believed the plant was an aphrodisiac. Around the ninth century BCE, Homer referred to celery in The Iliad, and called it selinon in this work. It appears at the passage where the horses of Myrmidons are grazing on celery and lotus. Homer additionally mentions the plant in his work, The Odyssey. Here, when the hero, Ulysses, and his men are at Calypso's cave, they find themselves surrounded by meadows of wild celery and violets. Greek physician Hippocrates (460–370 BCE) wrote about celery as a medicine for calming one's nerves. The original usages of celery included medicinal purposes, seasonings, and horse feed. Celery was used to treat many medical ailments in ancient times, including colds, flu, and digestive problems. The ancient Romans used celery as a seasoning.

Ninth-century CE Frankish king Charlemagne mentioned celery in an edict. He advised that every garden in his empire grow celery. This edict, titled Capitulare de villis vel curtis imperii Caroli Magni, described all the herbs that he deemed necessary to grow in gardens. The popularity of celery in Europe grew following this edict. It was not until the 17th century that celery was discovered to be edible as a vegetable (as opposed to an herb or seasoning). Around 1623, in Italy, celery stalks and leaves were paired with a dressing. Around this time, in Italy, France, and England, growers began to cultivate celery with the aim of developing the desirable characteristics of the vegetable to create stouter stems and to eliminate undesirable characteristics such as hollow stems and the bitter taste. In the 18th century, the upper classes began storing celery in cellars to use during the winter. Once this occurred, the use of celery became widespread.

In the 19th century, Europeans determined that the bitter flavor and green color of celery were undesirable. Cooks began to blanch celery to make it taste better and to rid it of its green color. Also during this time, George Taylor, an award-winning market gardener who was born in Scotland, brought celery with him when he emigrated to Kalamazoo, Michigan. Once there, Taylor began growing celery at his farm in 1847. He had a difficult time getting the people living in Kalamazoo to try the vegetable. Celery was not a widely known vegetable, and many who lived in the area had not previously encountered it. Many people believed it to be poisonous. Taylor peddled celery door to door to increase its popularity. Once it became popular, Kalamazoo earned the nickname Celery City. Celery was an important part of Kalamazoo's history. Not only was celery an important crop, but it also brought migrants into the area to practice a new kind of farming. In the past 50 years, new breeds of celery have been developed, including an easy-blanching variety that has a milder flavor than its predecessors.

Cultivation of Celery

Celery needs copious amounts of water and very moist soil to thrive. It has a long growing season, and because it can take a long time for the seeds to germinate, it is advisable that growers start celery indoors about 10 weeks before the planting season begins. A few seeds should be placed in individual containers. The seeds should be between two and three years old and ought to be kept in a refrigerator over the winter. Before planting, the gardener should soak the seeds overnight. When planting, the seeds should be sprinkled over high-quality potting soil. Seeds then must be pressed into the soil with either wood or a finger. While watering plants is often done directly, with celery the best results are achieved by filling a tray with water so that the soil soaks up the water in order to keep the seeds from clumping together. The containers in which seeds are planted should be closed to retain moisture.

Celery germinates in two to three weeks. Seedlings should be thinned after germination and again when plants have reached a height of four to six inches to reduce competition for water and nutrients. After the threat of frost passes, plants may be transplanted outside. They should be planted in rows two feet apart, and the plants should have six to eight inches between them. Celery requires space, especially since its roots can become large. The gardener may mulch around the plants to retain water. The growing season lasts 120 to 140 days, so it is vital that the soil be kept hydrated to prevent celery from drying out. During the growing season, it is important to weed the area around plants. Celery should be harvested when the stalks are about one foot tall, about three months after they have been planted outside. Should there be any frost damage, the outer stalks can be removed. The inner stalks should remain useable.

Celery is susceptible to a few pathogens and a nutritional deficiency. Leaf blight is caused by fungi and appears as yellow spots on the leaves. Blight kills celery leaves. Black heart is a nutritional deficiency caused by a lack of calcium in the leaves. Black heart can be prevented by ensuring that the plants are provided with enough water. Pink rot occurs when the plant is too damp and the temperatures are cool to moderate.

Celery Varieties

The Wild Celery variety grows underwater. It is not eaten today. However, it was widely used for medicinal and ceremonial purposes during ancient times. The Utah variety produces 11- to 12-inch stalks in 120 days. This celery is a medium-dark green and the product is crisp. The variety Pascal takes 125 days to mature. The stalks produced by the Pascal variety are large and weigh 10 to 15 pounds per dozen stalks. Golden Self-Blanching celery matures in 85 days and is disease resistant. The stalks are thick and heavy. Detroit Golden, a self-blanching variety, has heavy yet compact stalks with broad and thick stems.

Cooking, Nutrition, and Medicine

Celery is used in a variety of dishes and for a variety of cooking purposes. Celery stalks are used in salads, as appetizers, and in stews and soups. Celery leaves are often chopped up and used as flavoring, and celery seeds are often used in pickling and in other dishes as a flavoring. Celery is high in fiber and naturally low in fat. The vegetable is a good source of vitamins A, C, and K, folic acid, potassium, riboflavin, vitamin B6, calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, manganese, and pantothenic acid. Celery has a relatively high sodium content.

Celery has had a variety of medical uses. For example, celery has been used by some as a diuretic, to aid in alleviating arthritic symptoms, as an anti-inflammatory, as an antiseptic, and for antibacterial purposes. Celery seed has been used by some to treat alcoholism, depression, anxiety, and bronchitis, and even to lower high blood pressure. Moreover, celery seeds have been used to treat liver damage, kidney inflammation, gout, and urinary tract infection. There are some reports that celery may reduce swelling in glands, reduce blood pressure, induce a sensation of calm, and clear uric acid from painful joints. For weight loss, celery juice may be ingested before meals to reduce appetite. Pregnant women should not eat celery seeds because they may cause uterine muscle contractions and bleeding during menstruation.

Further Reading
  • Roessle, Theophilus. How to Cultivate and Preserve Celery. C. M. Saxton, Barker Albany NY, 1860.
  • Toensmeier, Eric. Perennial Vegetables: From Artichokes Zuiki Taro, a Gardener's Guide to Over 100 Delicious and Easy to Grow Edibles. Chelsea Green White River Junction VT, 2007.
  • Zohary, Daniel; Maria Hopf. Domestication of Plants in the Old World. 3rd ed. Oxford University Press New York, 2000.
  • Ronda Lee Levine
    Copyright 2013 by Christopher Cumo

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