October 24

The Tale of the Ugly Parsley

12  comments

I always keep an herb bed for culinary use just outside my kitchen door. Depending on the location, I usually have chives, rosemary, thyme of several types, mint, sage, basil (sometimes of several types), oregano, savory, tarragon, and flat leaf parsley. I try to grow cilantro, but have had no substantial success, even with the ‘slow bolt’ varieties.

Back at the start of the summer, for reasons known only to himself, the kindly old gentleman who takes care of our lawn and landscape (not my herb garden, mind you) decided to shear my large, healthy English thyme down to its woody nubs without notice. I went out to snip some for an herb marinade only to find nothing but a tangle of woody roots where the day before a lovely stand of thyme had flourished.

When he next returned, I asked him what had happened. He explained that it had become ‘woody’ and so he had pruned it back.

I’ll say.

When will it return, I asked him? About 3 or 4 weeks, he assured me. That was back in June. It’s now almost November and not the teensiest twig of a green sprout of thyme has re-emerged.

He had severely pruned my mint a year or so ago (again without notice) but you can’t really kill mint, so it dutifully recovered from its scalping and marched right on in its quest to take over the herb bed…from a pot. It can be so aggressive that I’d never risk actually planting it in the open dirt.

The thyme wasn’t so hardy, apparently. So off I headed to the nursery to purchase a new thyme plant or two to replace the now-scalped, former mammoth plant. I ended up getting a nice little start of silver thyme and another English thyme and a 6-pack of wooly thyme that I determined I would start between the stepping stones near the herb garden.

While there, I decided to also pick up a little 6-pack of cilantro starts and another of flat leaf parsley, since both herbs had gone to seed in the last season. I took the seedlings home and lovingly put them into the herb bed a couple of weeks before we left for my European choral tour.

When we got home, the cilantro was looking a little pale and spindly, but the flat leaf parsley looked like it had been taking performance enhancing drugs. It was huge and green and robust. I had never seen such vigorous and sturdy parsley.

I snipped a few leaves and chopped them up to add to a pot of soup, but found their flavor disappointingly bland and not at all parsley like. I laid it off to their super size, assuming all the energy had gone into growth and leaving precious little to go into developing flavor. It was like most of the Luther Burbanked fruits and veggies in the store: big and beautiful and tasteless.

So there it was, this jolly green giant of a plant, when my sister came to visit recently. We were cooking up some omelets one morning and went outside to snip some chives for them and I made mention of my robust parsley plant. She (who is a Master Gardner) said she’d never seen one so huge and green.

I mentioned that though the leaves were huge, they were quite flavorless; didn’t taste a thing like parsley. And then commented that it had stems that were as big as a stalk of celery.

And that’s when it finally hit me. It wasn’t parsley at all, though it had been labeled as such by the nursery. It was celery. How could I not have noticed?

I reached down, snapped off a rib, and tasted it. Celery. No doubt about it. And damned tasty celery, too. Crunchy and so green. Not that pale washed out green, like what we usually get in the store, but dark, verdant green that you just knew had to have a lot more magnesium in it.

No wonder the leaves didn’t taste like parsley. What had been the ugly duckling of parsley grew up to be one beautiful stand of celery.

We were so delighted with our ‘discovery’ that we decided to celebrate with a round of Bloody Marys, complete with large, verdant, home-grown, celery stalks. And I do mean LARGE. Here’s the proof with my sister in the background.

It just goes to show how powerful preconceived notions can be. I bought it labeled parsley, planted it as parsley, and even when it grew up to neither look nor taste like parsley, my mind discounted what my eyes surely saw and it just became ‘odd parsley’. We can all chuckle at this tale of ugly parsley, but it should serve to remind us how easy it can be to be taken in by a label, a story, or a dogma that we simply accept at face value, no questions asked.We tend to see what we expect to see and as a wise man once said, we must constantly be on guard to insure that we don’t fool ourselves.

Sage advice.


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  1. How funny! And that really is tasty looking celery.

    I totally agree with you about how easily we can be taken in by a label. Not so long ago I purchased some beautiful red plaid yardage to sew hubby a lounging shirt for the cold months. The label on the bolt said that it was cotton flannel but when I got it home and prepared to pre-wash it, it just didn’t feel right. And it definitely didn’t feel like cotton flannel after it was washed, instead it felt more like wool. Harking back to my college textile class, I snipped off a bit and set a match to it. Sure enough, it burned just like wool fabric is supposed to. Hubby will now have a much warmer shirt to wear.

  2. That’s a delicious illustration of an important concept. Science is based on observation; but we will interpret even the simplest observations in the context of our favored theories. We don’t even know we are doing it.

    Thanks for the terrific post.

  3. Very nice moral at the end Dr. Mary. It is amazing how the human mind works to convince us of something that our eyes/ears/other senses are telling us isn’t right. It happens with nutrition everyday…all those people convincing themselves that low-fat, high-carb is right while their bodies are yelling at them to stop. Love the blog!
    Scott Kustes

  4. The plant could also be lovage- a celery like herb that i think is the most underated herb around.

    In northwest Ct, it’s one of the first things up in the garden providing home grown salad in April. It’s always there!

  5. Your story made me laugh! I have a small herb garden too and I was interested in hearing about “slow bolt” cilantro. But like you, I have a hard time growing cilantro.

    I’m a bit of a fanatic about Thai cooking and I’ve been trying to grow Thai basil, Thai wild lime and of course, cilantro. The basil got some sort of crazy wilting disease and died and cilantro is stubborn stuff.

  6. It’s just like Jane Brody continuing to believe the “low-fat high-carb diet = healthy” label even though her own body is screaming how unhealthy it actually is. At least in your case, the only consequence was fantastic celery for your Bloody Marys. Poor Jane ended up having statin drugs added to her unhealthy diet.

  7. MDE

    Oh how many times have i been caught in exactly that kind of thinking, or should i say Not thinking. LOL as an herb grower for decades, I enjoyed this story. It is far from uncommon for nurseries to mislabel plants. worst case was when I bought green pepper plants and ended up, with hot chili peppers that could peel paint from 10 feet. Rob

    COMMENT from MD EADES: Well, I’m glad to know I’m not alone, but at least your mislabeled plant was the same general species.

  8. I have to agree that my first thought was that Dr. Mary had bought lovage, but the stem is too substantial and pale compared to lovage. I also agree that lovage is one of the most underrated herbs around! I love to dry it for winter cooking… gives a great celery flavor to food.

  9. The celery looks lots better than the older sister, but, perhaps, she didn’t realize she was in the background.

    COMMENT from MD EADES: I feel sure she didn’t, but I don’t think she looks so bad for a sleepy weekend morning.

  10. Oh, how funny!! I’ve never tried to even INTENTIONALLY grow celery!

    Cilantro isn’t too bad if you keep pinching out the buds. I kept mine going quite a while that way. When it looked like it was gonna get the best of me, I just harvested, put the leaves on wax-paper-lined baking sheets and froze – once frozen, bad in ziploc baggies and you’ll have ALMOST as good as new cilantro for a long time! It’s good for recipes where you’ll cook it a bit anyway, not suitable as a garnish any more.

    Perhaps some “garden imp” switched the labels at the nursery – I’ve often wondered about some of the pots I’ve seen at Orchard Supply – I think mean-spirited little imps intentionally change out the cards/labels just to mess with we poor unsuspecting wannabe gardeners!

    COMMENT from MD EADES: Wannabe is the operative word for sure. Another good method to keep herbs is to put the chopped fresh herbs into the wells of ice cube trays (the old fashioned kind that you freeze in the freezer), then fill with water and freeze. Once the herb ice cubes are good and frozen, pop themout of the tray and put them into a zip bag for use in soups and stews and other cooked dishes. Their taste is pretty close to fresh, but they’re no good for fresh uses, such as guacamole or as a garnish.

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