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.
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.
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.
Chervil can be used as a low ground cover around ferns or rhododendrons. It will usually look best in June, when its lacy blossoms light up a dark corner of the yard, but its pale magenta-pink fall foliage is unusual and attractive, too. Cut flowers lend airiness to fresh or dried arrangements, and the dried leaves can be added to potpourris.
It takes six to eight weeks from sowing seed for chervil plants to reach harvestable size; you can begin harvesting the leaves when the plants are about 4 inches high. This may delay flowering, but when warm weather comes, they will flower willy-nilly. The flavor of the leaves, subtle to begin with, fades in drying. Mix chopped leaves with butter and freeze; or use to flavor a white wine vinegar.
Chervil leaves contain vitamin C, beta-carotene, iron and magnesium. They are a welcome addition to practically any dish. The fines herbes blend of classic French cuisine includes chervil with parsley, thyme and tarragon. Chervil teams well with beets, green beans, many other vegetables, fish, eggs and salads. It’s best when used fresh.
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