Hail the Essential Parsley


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Sitting in a restaurant recently, I overheard a conversation between a young boy and his mother. The boy asked, “Mommy, what’s this green stuff on my plate?”

Glancing over, I saw a plate of half-eaten child-sized pancakes, a glass of soda and a plate of fried chicken nuggets with a little sprig of green on it.

“Oh, that’s just parsley, it’s for decoration, not something you eat,” the mother said. Never mind it was the only fresh, healthy food on his plate. But to teach a child that parsley’s not edible? Heavens!

The Romans and the Greeks knew better. They used parsley in great quantities and looked upon it as an essential herb. The Greeks made wreaths of it and used them in celebrations as gifts to the gods. The Romans thought parsley could keep away drunkenness, so they ate exotic salads of parsley with rose petals and violets at the great banquets to ward off inebriation.

Fresh parsley has a flavor of its own, which makes it useful in cooking, although dried parsley has virtually no flavor. Curly leaf parsley (Petroselinum crispum) has a pleasant flavor, but I?find flat-leaf or Italian parsley (P. crispum var. neapolitanum) more versatile because its more robust flavor is perfect in soups, salads, salad dressings, gremolatas and pestos.

Parsley is an excellent breath freshener, thanks to its high chlorophyll content. It is high in vitamins A and C, and one cup of minced fresh parsley contains more beta-carotene than a large carrot, almost twice as much vitamin C as an orange, more calcium than a cup of milk and 20 times as much iron as one serving of liver.

It’s easy to grow, but extremely slow to germinate from seed — an old European myth says parsley seeds go nine times to the devil and back before germinating. In the community where I grew up, I was told to plant parsley seeds in the sign of the moon; pour boiling water on the row, cuss it thoroughly and cover with soil, then, every day, go out and cuss it some more until it peeked through the soil.

Parsley likes a full day of sunshine, in moderate soil, and it requires little care; it also can be grown in a planter on the patio. The boiling water trick I learned from my childhood is just a method for loosening the outer shell of the seed. The cussing and yelling probably doesn’t do anything for the germination, but it sometimes makes the gardener feel better.

A simple method to speed germination is this: Put four or five parsley seeds in each compartment of an ice cube tray. Fill the tray with water and put it in the freezer for a week. Then plant the ice cubes in a row. Germination will be much improved — no yelling or cussing required.

Parsley is a biennial, which means it grows one year then goes to seed the next. The flavor of the leaves is good the first year, but turns bitter as the plant goes into flowering the second year. In other words, grow parsley as an annual for continuous leaves to use.

Gremolata is a parsley seasoning that is used somewhat like a basil pesto. It is added to soups and stews near the end of cooking and is used as a topping for lamb, pork, chicken and fish. Here’s a basic gremolata recipe:

3 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf Italian parsley, or 6 to 8 sprigs
2 garlic cloves
2 teaspoons freshly grated lemon zest
Freshly ground pepper

Put ingredients in food processor and chop well. Use immediately or cover and store in the refrigerator for later use.

Or try a parsley salad: 4 cups barely chopped parsley, 1/2 cup halved ripe cherry tomatoes, some sliced radishes, a green onion diced fine and some fresh lemon juice squeezed over with a bit of olive oil and tossed well.

Parsley is full of flavor and vitamins. The next time you see it on your dinner plate, be bold: Eat the parsley, if not for the nutrition, at least for its great ability to freshen breath. And who knows? You might look splendid in a parsley wreath.

Jim Long grows parsley and other herbs at Long Creek Herbs in the Ozark Mountains. Connect to Jim’s website by visiting us at or e-mail LCHerbs For an update on Jim’s medical condition, described in the March 2006 issue of The Herb Companion, please see “In Basket,” Page 6.