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Growing parsley from seed in the garden

Flat or Frilly, Parsley is More than a Garnish

Parsley is so much more than a garnish. Have you ever used it as a seasoning?

Parsley has a fresh, slightly bitter flavor that complements recipes without complicating them. Elise Bauer, a writer for Simply Recipes, does a fantastic job of explaining parsley's role in keeping our palate happy:

The taste buds on your tongue can distinguish 5 tastes – salty, sweet, sour, bitter, and umami. Salty and sweet are obvious. Sour you get from acid like lemon juice or vinegar. Umami has to do with the savory taste of protein. Bitter you get from citrus zest, bitter greens like kale, mustard greens, arugula, and parsley. Well-balanced dishes stimulate all or most of these taste receptors. Adding parsley to a stew doesn't make the stew taste like parsley, but will make the stew taste more balanced.

It's sort of like when you have five baby goats standing on a half-sheet of plywood placed on a large ball. And how the adorable little kids (because they're smart) figure out that if each one goes to a corner and one stands in the middle, they can hang out up there all day long without everyone just piling into the barnyard dirt.

Now that we think of it, practicing your balance in the company of little furry kids is fun, which is what makes the whole "Goat Yoga" craze not so crazy. You just don't want to lick them.

History and Origins

The two most widely-used types of parsley are:

  • Curled parsley (Petroselinum crispum var. crispum), also called "moss curled parsley" or, as is the case with the most popular variety, "Triple-Curled parsley".
  • Italian parsley (Petroselinum crispum var. neapolitanum)

A native to the Mediterranean region, parsley grows wild on Greece's rocky hillsides, which is what inspired the first part of its scientific name, "Petro"; Selenium means "celery". Not much is known about parsley's cultural origins, though it's associated with quite a bit of superstition.

Parsley was used as a garden border plant long before it was regarded as an edible, with the exception that it was used as fodder for chariot horses. Greeks tended to associate different plants with gods and demigods, and parsley's patron goddess is Persephone, the bride of Hades. Greeks adorned tombs with parsley wreaths, and early Christians linked parsley to Saint Peter, the guardian of the pearly gates.

It wasn't until European medieval times that parsley first became known as a culinary herb, palate cleanser, medicinal plant, and breath-freshener.

Parsley as an Herbal Remedy

In spite of the late adoption of parsley as an edible, it's been used to treat a variety of symptoms, including:

  • Urinary tract infections
  • Edema
  • Flatulence
  • Diabetes
  • Indigestion
  • Bloat
  • Spleen conditions
  • Prostate issues
  • Jaundice
  • Constipation

Because it was also used to aid in menstruation and to induce birth or abortion, pregnant women should never eat parsley in large quantities or use concentrated parsley oils in any way.

Parsley in the Garden

Parsley is a biennial that's almost always grown as an annual, as it quickly goes to seed and begins looking (and tasting) quite haggard in its second season. In spite of this, parsley is a phenomenal border plant for both ornamental and vegetable garden beds.

Curly parsley is a vibrant medium-to-dark green, with shiny ruffled leaves resembling pompoms on lighter green upright stalks. Italian parsley is more delicate, with medium-green palmate green foliage; it's often mistaken for cilantro.

USDA Hardiness Zones: Parsley grows well in Zones 5 to 9, and in the latter, will grow year-round. Beyond its seedling stage, parsley easily tolerates temperatures as low as 20°F.

Soil Preferences: Parsley needs rich, well-draining soil, and it's happiest in a pH environment of 5.5 to 6.0, though it will suck it up and do well between 5.0 and 7.0.

Sunlight: Parsley prefers full sun, but tolerates partial shade.

Moisture: Parsley is a heavy drinker, likely because it's been so neglected in American food culture. Make sure the soil around your parsley never dries out. Parsley does best when it's given a little mulch around (but not on or against) its basal stems. Italian parsley is slightly more drought-tolerant than its ruffly compadre.

Size: Parsley grows about a foot high, and 1-2 feet around, in upright bunches.

Flowers: As parsley is related to carrots and dill, it has similar flowering stalks; a long stem explodes into dainty clusters of yellow to pale green florets.

Companion Plants: Parsley is thought to increase the flavor of asparagus when planted in close proximity, and some say it enhances the aroma of roses. It's known to fend off destructive beetles, and when it's allowed to flower, parsley attracts beneficial pest-devouring hoverflies.

Parsley does well with most veggies, including:

  • Tomatoes
  • Peas
  • Corn
  • Carrots
  • Chilis
  • Sweet peppers
  • Onions
  • Eggplant

Parsley does not seem to get along well with members of the mint family or with lettuce. Given that most mints prefer dryer soil, parsley doesn't take it personally.

Pests and Diseases: Do you want to attract Swallowtail butterflies to your garden? Then plant parsley! Their young are sometimes called parsley caterpillars because their favorite food is—you guessed it—parsley. Swallowtails are attracted not to the plant's flowers, but to its foliage, where the gorgeous and somewhat rare butterflies lay their eggs.

Of course, the caterpillars themselves do some damage, so consider planting some for you, and some for them. These are parsley's most significant pests.

Growing Parsley from Seed

Parsley is one of those plants that benefit from a good overnight soak or cold stratification prior to planting, and they often take about three weeks to germinate. For tips on germinating stubborn plant varieties, visit this recent Seed Needs blog post.

According to The Epicentre, superstitious farmers in medieval times actually believed that the reason for parsley's long germination period was because parsley's seeds needed to make several journeys to and from hell before emerging from the soil.

Don't be frightened off or inspired to bring in a hoodoo witch doctor; parsley really is worth the wait.

When to Plant: Parsley is one of those weirdos that can actually be planted a few weeks before your last spring frost; the freeze/thaw cycle, replicated in the cold stratification process, helps break down the seed's outer coating. As the soil heats up to about 60 to 70°, your parsley seeds will emerge, and you're off to the races.

If you do use the recommended artificial seed prep techniques, you can plant parsley indoors 3 to 4 weeks before the last frost for transplantation outside; while parsley tolerates cold, you might want to harden it off before sticking it in the ground.

Plant Spacing and Depth: Seed or thin parsley every 6 to 8 inches. Parsley should be surface-sown, as it requires light to germinate.

Maintenance: Should you decide to keep your parsley for a second season, trim off any flower buds to prevent blooming... unless you want to attract those Swallowtails. Side dress with a neutral fertilizer, and mulch around the plant to help keep the soil from drying out.

Fertilizing: If you're growing parsley as an annual (necessary in Zone 5), and it's planted in rich, fertile, loamy soil, no additional fertilization is necessary.

Harvesting: Trim off outer leaves as needed as soon as the plant has established itself. Be sure to rinse parsley before eating or storing to get rid of insects and eggs. Gently shake parsley bunches dry, or hang upside down to remove excess water before storing in your refrigerator.

Freeze parsley on a cookie sheet before storing in a plastic baggie, or thoroughly dry in a dehydrator or suspend inverted in a dark, dry, well-ventilated area.

Don't End Up in a Dirty Pile of Goats. Cook with Parsley.

We've already discussed parsley's role as a complementary flavor. Now it's time to tie on that apron and get down and dirty (a manner of speech; wash your hands after playing with goats) with the basics of cooking with this underappreciated herb.

The only real difference between parsley varieties is their appearance and texture. Curly parsley is crisp and crunchy, much like kale; it holds up well to long cooking times. It also makes an excellent addition to Thanksgiving dressings when sauteed with onions and celery before baking in the oven (or in the bird).

Italian parsley is more delicate, making it the preferable choice for recipes requiring little or no cooking time. If this is the only parsley variety you have on hand, add it to your bastes or recipes nearer to the dish's completion.

Notable Recipes

Bouquet Garni: When it comes time to experiment with flat or curly parsley, you've gotta start with the French tradition of gathering up herbs in cute little bundles to simmer in sauces and soups. When you're done cooking, simply pull out the bouquet garni, and le voilà!

Fried Parsley: We swear this isn't something a vendor created at the Iowa State Fair, known for battering and frying anything from butter to twinkies. The French, who also brought us pommes frites (a.k.a. Skinny-Ass Freedom Fries) absolutely adore deep-frying sprigs of herbs, most notably parsley.

Puttanesca sauce: This is a fantastic recipe from Epicurious, and Saveur recommends serving puttanesca over swordfish, as parsley is a delicious complement to most any seafood sauce or seasoning.

We don't mean to skimp on parsley recipes, but there are so many out there, we encourage you to follow your senses and select a few to try on your own. But the three above are perhaps the best examples of parsley's ability to balance your palate.

Have Other Seed Companies Left a Bad Taste In Your Mouth?

Seed Needs might be the perfect palate-cleanser.

Seedling health and successful germination start with fresh seeds collected from disease-resistant, vigorous plants, and stored in a climate-controlled environment until they're ready to be shipped to your potting shed.

If you've ever invested in a season's worth of seed, followed the packet instruction to the letter, and ended up with low germination rates and less-than-vigorous plants, you didn't get your seeds from us. Chances are, you purchased seeds that were improperly stored, or sat in a stockroom far longer than recommended.

We at Seed Needs are committed to selling the highest-quality non-GMO seed, hand-packaged here at our Michigan family business from fresh, order-as-we-need-it seed stock.

Gardening should be fun, not frustrating. We hope that as we share information on lesser-known veggies and herbs, you'll be inspired to experiment with new varieties in your garden and in your kitchen. We also hope you'll be inspired to contact us if you have any questions about our seed collections and customized packets!
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