Celery originated in the Mediterranean region. Archaeological evidence of celery being grown in Switzerland 6,000 years ago shows that celery seeds were bring transported throughout Europe and, probably, into Asia, in ancient times. It is thought that celery was used for medicinal purposes rather than as a vegetable. Celery leaves were used as wreaths by the ancient Greeks and Romans, and a celery wreath was found in Tutankhamun’s tomb. 1
Celery (Apium graveolens) is usually grown as a stem vegetable. The stem, or stalks, are ribbed, succulent and crunchy. Both the stem and the leaves can be eaten; the flavour and aroma is quite distinctive. Most varieties of celery that are grown as vegetables have green stalks and leaves but there are other varieties with coloured stalks.
Celeriac (Apium graveolens var. rapaceum) is a related vegetable, sometimes called “turnip-rooted celery”. It is more cold-tolerant than regular celery and, therefore, can be stored for long periods in the fridge, making it ideal for when fresh celery is not available. It is grown for the roots rather than the leaves and stem, which can be eaten as you would regular celery. The roots are generally used in soups or stews.
Some varieties of celery are good for eating raw, others are better eaten cooked, and some can be eaten raw or cooked. Celery leaves can be added to a mixed green salad, used as a garnish or added to juices or smoothies. Celery seeds can also be used as a spice.
Ancient civilisations used celery as a cure for hangovers or as an aphrodisiac; however, there is no medical evidence that it works for either.
Celery is 95% water, high in fibre, and vitamins and minerals. Celery is rich in antioxidants; anti-viral, antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties. Some research shows that celery powder has the same effect as anti-inflammatories, such as aspirin or ibuprofen. There is some research to suggest that celery may, in some situations, lower blood pressure, aid digestion and help reduce weight. 2
HOW TO GROW CELERY
Celery does better in cooler weather but it does not like extremes of either heat or cold. Therefore, it is best grown from seed in early autumn or early spring to avoid the extremities of heat or cold. Plant in the ground after all danger of frost has passed.
Some gardeners say that celery is very hard to germinate. We have found that once we have celery, we have celery plants coming up in our garden all over the place. Seed which grows itself is always going to be better and stronger than seeds that you plant. If the seed has self-sown in a place where you don’t want it to grow, it is easy to lift a very small plant and place it where you do want it to be. Celery has a taproot (like a carrot), so once it has grown to more than 4-5cm, it is probably too late to transplant it. Still, it may be worth a try!
Celery should be grown in a highly-nutritious soil, that has been enriched with plenty of compost or well-rotted manure. Use a liquid organic feed every 2 weeks to keep it in tip-top condition. We have had healthy, though bitter, celery plants growing on the edge of paths! The bitterness was the result of under-watering and under-feeding volunteer plants – and the bitterness didn’t matter in our morning smoothies.
Wild celery plants were found growing in boggy conditions; meaning this is a vegetable that requires a lot of water to grow well. Each celery plant will need 30mm-50mm of water over the whole growing area (30cm x 30cm) each week. This equates to a minimum of 2.7 litres per plant per week! Do not be tempted to give it all this water at once; the soil must be kept evenly moist. You could try filling a plastic bottle with water and up-ending it into the soil to the south side of your celery plant to release water slowly for the use of that plant. Be sure to mulch well around your plants. In extreme summers, like the one we are potentially facing, it may be better to grow celery in a container rather than in the garden, so that you have more control over the watering. Celery plants that do not receive enough water will become stringy and bitter.
To get maximum flavour and thicker stems from celery, it needs to be grown in full sun. However, if we have an early start to summer, it may be better to plant the seedlings where they will receive protection from hot afternoon sun. If you are growing a regular variety of celery (eg “Tall Utah”), and your stems are too thin, then it is not receiving enough sunlight. If you are growing it in a container, it will be easier to move into the sun so that it gets the amount of light it needs.
Depending on the variety, celery takes about 85 to 120 days to be ready for harvest. However, there is no need to wait until the celery plant comes to full maturity before harvesting. Instead, you can cut the outside leaves off at the base (using a serrated knife or secateurs) and the celery will continue to grow as long as you don’t cut out the stems from the centre. Celeriac will take from 120 to 140 days to be fully mature.
If you prefer your celery to have pale-coloured stalks, wait until about two weeks before harvest and wrap the stalks in thick layers of newspaper or cardboard. Isolating the stems from light will cause them to be the paler colour desired by some. Most commercial celery is not treated in this way and the stems are left to be green (or some other colour) as we expect them to be.
PESTS and DISEASES
We have had no issue with pests on any of our celery plants, other than blackbirds pulling up seedlings or covering young seedlings with dirt as they forage for soil-life. To stop this, we grow all our vegetables under bird netting! Sometimes, slugs or snails may attack young celery seedlings but we have found that they prefer to go for softer plants (like lettuce) than celery. We use copper tape against slugs; we don’t have a problem with snails, the kookaburras deal with those. Some other pests that have been known to attack celery include white aphids, also known as peach aphids, army worm and root-knot nematodes. If you are growing stone fruit, it might be an idea to grow some celery nearby as a trap crop to protect your fruit. Celery is much easier to replace than a lost crop of stone fruit.
We have rarely had a diseased celery plant; but they are susceptible to early blight, late blight or downy mildew. Once we had an issue with Late Blight (septoria), which shows on the leaves as brown spots that get bigger and bigger: we simply removed the affected leaves from the plant and binned them. Do not drop them on the ground or put them in the compost heap, this is a fungal disease and can be spread.
CELERY IN THE PSW SEEDBANK (your seedbank)
- Celery ‘Chinese’: spicy leaves; thin stalks; more tender than common celery; use raw or cooked
- Celery ‘Peppermint Sticks’: red and green striped, thin stems; more suitable for cooking than eating raw (named for coloured stripes, not flavour)
- Celery ‘Tall Utah’: popular variety of celery; stringless stems; use raw or cooked
- Celery ‘Tender Crisp‘: stringless stalks – tender and crisp; use raw or cooked
- Celeriac ‘Giant of Prague’: heirloom form 1800s; more complex flavour than celery, texture like that of potato
- Celeriac ‘White Alabaster’: bulb to 10cm in diameter; eat cooked in soups or stews, grated raw or in juices
Links above are to the PSW 2023 catalogue, where you can find information about, and photos of, the varieties available. We have no photos of either type of celeriac so, if you could supply one or more, it would be very much appreciated.
The catalogue is now open for mail order and “click and collect” sales. Please note that mail orders incur a $5 postage and handling fee; “click and collect” orders incur a $2 handling fee.
Seeds for all seasons are available while in stock.
Please note: seeds are for sale to PSW and PSN members only.
Until next month
Lynne (PSW Seed Savers Team Coordinator and Custodian of the Seed Bank)
This article is for gardening information and general interest only. Being neither a herbalist nor a qualified medical practitioner, I cannot give any medical advice on the use of any plant, internally or externally. Readers of this article must do their own research before using this or any other seed from the seed-bank, or seedling grown from the seed-bank, for any purpose other than as a garden plant.