Parsley – Curly, Flat or Root?
Across the world there is a multitude of different herbs and they make up an important part of our diet and food selection. They are used for flavouring our food and for aiding us in living a healthy life. They are also a key element of any edible garden. Some are attractive perennials that are used as much as a garden plant as an edible one. Others are either annuals or treated as such, and these include popular ones like basil, parsley, coriander and dill
A major issue when it comes to discussing herbs is that the Latin name is rarely used. Instead we generally use common names. There is one Latin name for each plant but there can be 100s of common names. This isn’t surprising as there are hundreds, if not thousands of languages and dialects around the world. We could deal with this if there was just one common name per language, but there isn’t.
The best we can hope for is that a common name has some sense of connection each time it is applied. For example there are several ‘Coriander’ plants. Although they are botanically miles apart they all have a similar flavour. It is usually the flavour that carries the common name across different herbs although appearance can also be important.
One of the more common herbs in western cooking is ‘Parsley’. This usually refers to a small semi-annual herb that if cut regularly will grow for several years. Unlike many other popular herbs the flavour is quite subtle and would rarely dominate a dish. There are several types of parsley; Curly, Continental (Flat leaf), Hamburg, Sea and Japanese. The first two are the most common varieties but all have a similar taste.
Curly and Flat Leaf are members of the family Apiaceae and the genus Petroselinum. They have the Latin names; P. crispum Crispum Group [Curly Leaf] and P. crispum Neapolitanum Group [Flat Leaf]. Flat Leaf Parsley is also known as Continental Parsley and in Australia as Italian Parsley. There is a third cultivar that is grown for its large fleshy root. It looks much like a parsnip but has a strong parsley flavour and has the Latin name P. crispum Radicosum Group.
The genus has a second species; P. segetum or Corn Parsley. Although the tastes are very similar it is rare in cultivation and hardly known as a modern herb.
P. crispum comes from the central Mediterranean region and entered the modern diet through the cooking of Italy and the Middle East. Two regions that have had a major influence on the western diet. P. segetum comes from western Europe; Great Britain, Netherlands and France, and never really became a part of the dominant European diet.
Most plants that come from this region are entwined in folklore and the medicinal and culinary lives of two ancient civilisations; Greeks and Romans. Originally Parsley was used as a medicine and was treated as a sacred plant by the Greeks. They used it as an adornment in the way the Romans used the Laurel for sporting victors and also in decorating tombs. Initially it was used as a garnish and over time gradually became the popular culinary herb it is today.
All these types are classed as biennials in temperate climates and annuals in the warmer climates. They grow to about 50cm in height and 30cm wide, have tripinnate leaves and soft green-yellow flowers quickly followed by 2-3mm ovoid seeds. The warmer the weather the quicker it will flower and go to seed. Once this has happened it will die off. This is easily avoided by keeping the plant in full growth mode with a high nitrogen food, ample sun and water and constant pruning. A local restaurant kept their plants alive for over five years by constant feeding and cutting.
Another Parsley that is also a member of the Apiaceae family is Sea Parsley. Thus is native to the coastline of South eastern Australia and has a similar taste and appearance to Italian Parsley. The Latin name is Apium prostratum and is related botanically to the popular group of edible plants known as Celery and Celery like plants. It too is a biennial that will last over several years if grown appropriately.
Japanese Parsley is another ‘common name Parsley’ and refers to two plants. Mitsuba or Cryptotaenia japonica and Chinese Celery or Oenanthe javanica. The latter is a popular vegetable in Northern and South Eastern Asia. The former is a popular herb in Japan with a traditional Parsley like flavour and appearance. It is used in Japan in much the same way we use Italian Parsley.
Parsley is one of the most popular herbs in the world. It is also has a large number of health benefits and is high in many vitamins and minerals. Next month we will look at some these beneficial properties and also some of the more common recipes.