Herb to Know: Chervil

| April/May 2003

  • CHERVIL Anthriscus cerefolium Family Umbelliferae Hardy annual
    Joseph Strauch

Although most herbs shun shade, chervil is one plant that prefers life on the shady side. You need plant it only once; leave a few flower heads to set seed and it will replenish itself year after year. Because it thrives without full sun, chervil is a good choice for an indoor windowsill garden. In the kitchen, the leaves complement and enhance the flavor of other herbs used with them.

The flavor of chervil leaves reminds some people of anise and licorice or licorice and tarragon, still others of anise and parsley. The flowers are edible.

Chervil plants sometimes grow as tall as 2 feet, but about 1 foot is more likely in the average garden. The flat or curly leaves resemble those of parsley but are lighter green and more finely cut. The small, white flowers are borne in umbels and look like those of other members of the carrot family. The seeds are black with a long projection (beak) at the upper end.

Traditional Uses for Chervil

Chervil is native to Europe and Asia but is naturalized in parts of eastern North America. The Romans, who brought it to Britain, cooked and ate both the foliage and the skinny, white taproots. Chervil soup is traditionally served on Holy Thursday in southern Germany as a symbol of new life. In the language of flowers, chervil symbolizes sincerity.

Chervil seems to have had a minor place in herbal medicine. The boiled roots were thought to prevent plague, and eating the entire plant was a treatment for hiccups. Washing the face with a chervil infusion has been recommended to maintain suppleness of the skin and to “discourage wrinkles.” Alas, no scientific basis has been found for any of these uses.

Cultivating Chervil

Sowing chervil directly in the ground is best. It prefers moist, fertile soil and at least partial shade. If the garden is in full sun, plant the chervil where taller plants will shade it. Start with fresh seeds; old seeds germinate poorly. As they need light to germinate, just press them into prepared soil and keep it moist until they sprout. Make several plantings to keep new leaves coming. A single sowing in early spring probably will reseed to give you a second crop in late summer. In warm climates, fall and winter sowings do well. In cold climates, fall sowings (or self-sowings from earlier plantings) often survive the winter and yield early spring harvests. Thin seedlings to 8 to 12 inches apart.

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