A Curious History of Vegetables: Aphrodisiacal and Healing Properties, Folk Tales, Garden Tips, and Recipes - Wolf D. Storl (2016)
Celery (Apium graveolens)
Family: Apiaceae or Umbelliferae: umbellifer family
Other Names and Varieties: smallage (the original wild plant), celeriac
Healing Properties: stimulates menstruation (emmenagogue), increases male potency, calms nervous system, promotes urination (diuretic), facilitates vomiting; excessive base properties make ideal for diabetes, gout, and rheumatism
Symbolic Meaning: connects to chthonic earth forces, simultaneously helping to overcome them; death and sexual desire; heroism
Planetary Affiliation: Mercury
Like carrot and parsnip, celery is a biennial Apiaceae. The second part of its botanical name, “graviolens” (strong smelling), derives from the fact that all parts of the plant have aromatic essential oils. These oils (mainly phthalide), have a diuretic effect; celery also has flavonoids, furanocoumarins, plant hormones, the glycoside apiin, and lots of vitamins and minerals, including especially high sodium chloride (salt) content.
Today there are three varieties of celery available:
• Green celery or smallage, whose aromatic leaves are used, fresh or dried, as herbal seasoning or as celery salt.
• Celery root or celeriac (Apium graveolens var. rapaceum), which is especially popular as a soup vegetable in France and central Europe.
• Celery stalks, with typically swollen, crispy, mild leaf stems, were first cultivated by Italian master gardeners in the seventeenth century. Until then the plant had been used mainly as seasoning (leaves) or as a medicine (all parts).
Wild celery, or “smallage,” grows endemically on all the coasts of Europe, western Asia, and Africa, as well as inland wherever there is moist, somewhat salty soil. The Latin name “apium” does not mean “bee plant” as is often claimed, but comes from the Celtic apon (water). The wild plant has become nearly extinct on the northern coast in Europe due to drainage trenches, intensive agriculture, and the building of dykes.
Illustration 25. Celery stalks (illustration by Molly Conner-Ogorzaly, from B. B. Simpson and M. Conner-Ogorzaly, Economic Botany, 1986, 230)
The modern name “celery” comes from Greek selinon. It was ascribed to Silenus (or Seilenus), the son of a nymph and lustful Pan (or, according to other depictions, Hermes, the messenger of the gods who transgresses all borders). Silenus, constantly drunk and lecherous, is depicted as pot-bellied with a beefy bald head and often with the ears, tail, and legs of a horse. He was the leader of the lustful horde of satyrs as well as the teacher and companion of Dionysus, the god of inebriation. Half human, half horse, Dionysus symbolizes, among other things, the powerful animal drive. The association of this satyr with celery, emphasizes the plant’s use as an effective agent of sexual potency.
Celery is presented as signifying both death and sensual pleasures in Homer’s epic The Odyssey: celery grows among violets in the meadows on Calypso’s magical island. (The Hellenes classified violets as “erotic plants,” which they dedicated to Priapus, the little deity with the big phallus; Aphrodite, the goddess of love; and Persephone, the goddess of the underworld and the dead.) The enchantress Calypso took in shipwrecked Odysseus and held him enraptured for seven years; she also turned his men into “swine.” Comparative religion studies indicate that Calypso was a goddess of death, as the name suggests (kalypto = to enshroud) and that pigs were sacred to the earth and death goddess of antiquity. That Odysseus ultimately freed himself from her magic is seen as a victory over death, as in all mythologies the hero, having come dangerously close to death, succeeds in wresting new life from the dark forces. This interpretation lends meaning to the ancient Greek practice of crowning winners of riding and gymnastic games with celery leaves.
Illustration 26. Stele of Hermes
Celery has a long association with death. Ancient Egyptian mummies were often decorated with celery and blue lotus blossoms. Ancient Greeks planted it on graves and used it to season funeral feasts. The Roman Virgil (70–19 BC) described much the same: “Godly Linus decorated his head with flowers and bitter celery [as a sign of mourning]”; “It is not right to put celery in common dishes because it belongs to funeral feasts.” (Nonetheless, celery, next to dill and coriander, was a favorite condiment in the Roman cuisine.) The Romans also dedicated celery, as part of the death rites, to Orcus, the god of the underworld, as told by Plutarch (45–120 AD): “We decorate our gravesites with celery.” Given such practices, it was considered a bad omen to see a cart loaded with celery first thing in the morning. And for someone who was marked by death, the Romans said: “There is only celery left for him.” This is an interesting angle given the fact that, like the ancient Greeks, Romans also crowned their victors with celery leaves.
Celery’s association with death lasted well into our own times. Wend (Slavic) tradition in northern German Spreewald claims that merek (celery) protects against being haunted by the dead. And the Italian fairy tale “Marianne and the Celery King” tells of a maiden who, attempting to pull a celery bulb from the soil is instead pulled into the ground; “the ground closed over them like water over a stone.” Below the earth, she finds a golden castle and an old, long-bearded hunchbacked man who resembles a celery root: the Celery King, who marries and impregnates her. But he is also an enchanted prince. After the heroine surmounts numerous tasks and challenges she is able to redeem the prince and bring him back to the world above the ground.
Nowadays such stories are given anecdotic value at most. However, traditional customs, folklore, and imaginative perception teach us much about the essence of the plant. In such imaginative terms, let us consider the celery.
Celery is a biennial; its “incarnation” lasts two years. In the first year, it concentrates on absorbing salty, moist earth forces, during which time it swells and becomes lush. During this year there is a clear pull to the dark, cool earth realm, to downward-moving elements and, figuratively speaking, to the grave, bitter death, and the mourning that causes salty tears to flow—but also to the fertile, ever-bearing primal source. In the second year the plant ascends to the light, shooting up into bloom, opening and branching out as it bathes in cosmic light. The plant now sets a counterpoint to the earthy, moist, salty forces with its “light and fiery” essential oils. Thus it becomes a plant for victors and heroes, one that overcomes the dark forces, that wards off the evil eye (in Spain), that thwarts the scheming of wicked witches. Even in modern Greece celery blossoms—together with garlic and onion—are hung for good luck. They protect the area where silk worms are being raised; small children are given amulets of celery to keep them from harm. In Prussia and Pomerania the leaves were stuffed into cracks in floors and walls in pigsties to protect the animals from evil magic—and young married couples were given a piece of root to put in a pocket or a shoe for good luck.
The Healing Virtues of Celery
Nicholas Culpeper (1616–1654) recognized the ambivalent nature of celery. He ascribed the plant to the hermaphroditic god, Mercury—the Roman Hermes, who can as easily fly up to the light-filled world of the gods as he can descend to the underworld. Indeed, Mercury-Hermes is the ruler of rising and sinking energy flow. He loosens, cleanses, opens, splits, and removes blockages by bringing everything back into flow. Culpeper, just as other doctors before and after him, used this mercurial plant to heal “water diseases,” “obstructions” while urinating, and stone ailments, and to activate the liver and the spleen.
Illustration 27. Celery root (illustration by Molly Conner-Ogorzaly, from B. B. Simpson and M. Conner-Ogorzaly, Economic Botany, 1986, 230)
Celery works in the microcosm of the human body true to character. It affects the root chakra, the Muladhara, down into the sexual organs and the “salty, watery” urinary organs. Celery can reduce the milk flow for nursing mothers—a compress can actually temporarily reduce the breast size—but can also stimulate the uterus and bring on menstruation. As “maiden’s smallage” it belonged to the herbs that women took in case of a “belated period,” when they feared they’d been impregnated. German scholar and bishop Albertus Magnus (~1200–1280) described the downward pull of the plant: “Celery causes sensual desire to descend from the breasts of wet nurses to the genital area and bring about menstruation.”
It is often the case that emmenagogues work for men as aphrodisiacs, as indicated in such names as “stand-up herb” (Lausitz, Germany), “stand-up wort,” “stud wort” and “buck’s wort.” A fifteenth-century medical book tells us: “So that your wife stays faithful forever mix celery juice and honey and rub your genitals with the mixture. This way she will be satisfied and will want no one else but you.” Consider too this German saying:
Fry me eggs, sweetheart,
with celery and lettuce,
on Sunday we will go courting,
my mother told me this.
This aspect of celery is also well known in France, the country of savoir vivre and l’amour, as in the following: “If a woman knew what celery does to a man, she would be willing to go from Paris to Rome to find it.” And, “If a man knew what celery does for him, he would plant his garden full of it.”1
Illustration 28. Albertus Magnus (1193–1280)
Modern-day French master of herbs Maurice Mességué claimed to know the ingredients of Tristan and Isolde’s love potion. The brew was supposedly made of mandrake blossoms, truffles, the testicles of a young rooster, river crabs, pepper, thyme, caraway, allspice, bay leaf, and, of course, celery. He otherwise prescribed celery for diabetes, gout, and rheumatism (because it purges the blood), to stimulate the glands, and for shattered nerves (Mességué 1972, 98).
Medieval cloister medicine, as represented by Benedictine abbess Hildegard von Bingen (1098–1179), was well aware of the effect of celery on glands. Apium was mainly known as a diuretic, as an emmenagogue (meaning it stimulates blood flow in the pelvic area and uterus), as an abortive, and as a cure for kidney, bladder, spleen, and liver ailments. Hildegard also prescribed a compress of celery and fennel juice for weepy eyes (Müller 1993, 35).
Celery is still known as a healing plant today. Like many umbellifers, it stimulates the glands, particularly the adrenal glands. Both celery juice and the vegetable itself has an alkaline effect in that it inhibits uric acid accumulation and keeps the blood from becoming too acidic. It also helps flush poisons and wastes out of the system. As such it’s an excellent treatment for gout and rheumatism; it also helps relieve the liver and the spleen. As a diuretic, it increases the excretion of water and salts, which in turn helps lower blood pressure. However, a cautionary note to those with kidney ailments: the diuretic effect of celery, which is even stronger than that of asparagus, can irritate ailing kidneys. Nursing mothers should also be aware that celery reduces milk flow.
Celery is well known for its calming effects. In India celery seeds are used as an expectorant cough treatment; in English folk medicine celery seeds serve as a carminative against flatulence. Since celery lessens cramps in the chest, it also eases the constrictions caused by asthma. It’s also an excellent tonic for anxiety, as told by Hippocrates (460–370 BC): “Celery is nourishing and healing for spent nerves.” Paracelsus (1493–1541) advises: “Whoever is beginning to be consumed by fear should eat a stalk of (wild) celery every other day.” (Today celery is used in herb therapy for men’s fear of failure.) Celery seeds are also thought to help against hysterical reactions and compulsive thinking. As such, the heroic plant not only helps relax the glands, but also the functions related to them.
CULTIVATION: As the seeds are slow to germinate and grow, indoor sowings should be made a full nine weeks before the last average frost date of spring. If using a cold frame, seeds may be started indoors even earlier and then transplanted to a cold frame to harden the seedlings. This approach provides larger plants with which to start off the outdoor growing season. But be careful not to break the taproot when transplanting, as such could prove fatal. (To avoid this it’s wise to start the seeds in biodegradable peat pots that you later plant directly in the ground.) Once you’ve transplanted the celery, keep light mulch around the plants, and don’t let the soil dry out.
SOIL: The forerunners of modern garden celery come from the marshes of western Europe and northern Africa; not surprisingly, celery still grows best in marshy, fertile soil, rich in all elements, plus plenty of water. A generous supply of well-rotted manure will assure a good harvest.
OF SPECIAL NOTE: Though celery is a heavy potash user it will react badly to excessive nitrogen supplies. Instead, supply potash by sprinkling hardwood ashes along the plants several times during the growing season. (LB)
Celery Bulb (Celeriac) with Prunes and Potatoes • 4 SERVINGS
1 celery bulb • 1 quart (945 milliliters) coconut milk • 2 tablespoons fresh herbs (thyme, sage, rosemary, sour dock) • 1 small chili pepper • 2 bay leaves • ground cardamom • 8 dried plums without pits • 1 tablespoon honey • ½ cup (115 milliliters) vegetable broth • 1 tablespoon fresh ginger • 1 tablespoon turmeric • 2 pounds (905 grams) potatoes, peeled or unpeeled, cut into fine rods (like for fries) • 4 tablespoons olive oil • garlic, chopped (to taste) • herbal salt
Put the celery bulb into an ovenproof dish. Add the coconut milk, herbs, chili pepper, bay leaves, cardamom, dried plums, honey, vegetable broth, ginger, and turmeric; blending the ingredients evenly. Cover and bake at 375 °F (190 °C) for 1 hour or until the celery bulb is tender.
Once the bulb has been baking for about 40 minutes, fry the potato rods in the olive oil. When they are nicely browned, season them with the garlic and herbal salt.
When the baking is done, set the celery bulb on a serving dish and cut it like a roast. Purée the remainder of the baked ingredients and pour over the sliced celery. Serve with the fried potatoes.
Celery Bulb (Celeriac) Fritters • 4 SERVINGS
1 celery bulb • ¾ cup (175 grams) bread crumbs • salt and pepper • 1 egg • ¼ cup (60 milliliters) cream (18% fat) or milk • light-tasting oil for frying
Cut the celery bulb into ¼-inch-thick slices. Steam them in a steamer until cooked but not yet completely tender. In a small bowl, whisk the cream or milk with the egg. Dredge both sides of each slice of celery bulb, first in the egg batter and then in the bread crumbs. Sauté in oil over medium heat until golden brown.