Parsley (Petroselinum crispum) is a plant commonly used as a nutritionally-rich herb in many types of cooking. It is of the Apiaceae (carrot) family. The generic name is derived from the Greek for rock (petros), which alludes to its native habitat in cliffs and rocks. Parsley is native to the eastern Mediterranean. It was widely used by the ancient Greeks and Romans, who did not distinguish it from celery (to which it is botanically related). Well known as a cool season crop, parsley is easily grown outdoors in the New York City area, and in areas from Zone 5a to 9b.
Parsley grows best in moist, well-drained soil, in an area that receives full sun for at least 6 hours a day. It is a biennial but usually grown as an annual in the northeast. Considered tricky to get started, parsley seeds can be sown directly in the ground in late spring, taking 4 - 6 weeks or longer to germinate. Results will be improved if you soak the seeds for up to 24 hours in warm water (around 75° F) before sowing. Plant the seeds ½ to 2 inches apart and ¼ inch deep, in rows 2 feet apart. The germinated plants can later be thinned, if necessary.
Parsley can also be started indoors in winter, 8 - 10 weeks before the last frost, and planted out in late spring when the seedlings are 2 - 3 inches high. Batches of seeds may be sowed successively from April to November to provide fresh leaves.
Parsley can be harvested continuously throughout the growing season. The outer leaves should be cut 1 - 3 inches above the crown which will in turn encourage new plant growth.
Parsley will overwinter in Zones 7 and higher so you may see it pop up on its own in a northeast garden after a mild winter. In their second year the plants will bolt (form flowerheads). These attractive flowerheads be cut off or allowed to set seeds which can be saved for sowing next year.
Using Parsley in the Kitchen
There are three common types of parsley – French (or curly leaf parsley), Italian (or flat-leafed parsley) and Hamburg (grown for is celery-type root).
Common curly or French parsley (Petroselinum crispum var. crispum) is mostly used as a garnish though it can certainly be eaten. Its dark green color makes curly parsley an attractive decoration and the texture is often more delicate and thus easier to chop. A sprinkle of finely chopped curly parsley is an easy finish for many savory dishes. 'Champion Moss Curled', 'Banquet' and 'Forest Green' are commonly grown standards.
Flat-leafed parsley (Petroselinum crispum var. neapolitanum) is used mainly in cooked dishes. It is generally considered to be the more flavorful parsley. Flat-leafed parsley is commonly used in salads, stews, soups, sauces and salad dressings. The leaves make a rich tea high in vitamin A and C and the seeds make a tea thought by some to ease asthma; both should be used only in low concentrations. Parsley is the main ingredient of Italian salsa verde. It is also the main ingredient of several Middle Eastern salads, such as tabbouleh. In Britain, parsley is used to flavor a white sauce (roux) commonly served over fish or gammon. While most recipes call for the parsley leaves, the stems are equally if not more flavorful and should be reserved for use, finely chopped, in flavoring broths and stews. There are numerous varieties but 'Plain Italian Dark Green' is a standard and 'Argon'is an improved, disease-tolerant variety with an upright growth habit.
Hamburg parsley (Petroselinum crispum var. tuberosum) root is grown and used in N. W. Europe but is less frequently found in the US. Its flavor is between that of parsley and celeriac.
Parsley is best preserved by freezing, just mince, mix with a little water and freeze in ice-cube trays; store the herbal cubes in a freezer bag to store in the freezer. Use about twice the quantity of dried parsley. Add to stews, soups, stuffings, sauces or stir-fries as needed.
Non-Culinary Contributions to the Garden
Curly parsley is a dense, 12 to 18 inch, plant that can be grown for its decorative merit at the front of the border. Flat leaf parsley, by comparison is taller, typically 2 to 3 feet tall, and more floppy in its habit.
Parsley is also one of the plants most likely to attract moths and butterflies to a garden and is a good choice for a Butterfly Garden. This attraction can also mean trouble for your parsley plants from caterpillars, particularly the brightly striped parsleyworm that becomes the black swallowtail butterfly. One solution is to grow parsley in quantities that allow some to be sacrificed to feeding this beautiful butterfly. Otherwise, handpicking the vivid insects from your plants is an easy task. Whitefly attracted to your plants is another matter. Thoroughly spray the undersides of leaves with insecticidal soap.
Like dill, carrot and coriander, parsley flowers are small and produce a strong scent that is attractive to insects that are beneficial to a garden, particularly wasps and predatory flies. As such, they make an excellent companion plant in any garden.