Dulce Rodrigues, writer

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CELERY, the aphrodisiac plant of Greeks and Romans
(from Latin "Apium graveolens")


leaf celery
Leaf celery (apium graveolens secalinum)

History: The celery is a plant native to the Mediterranean region, and it was considered as an aphrodisiac by Greeks and Romans, said to stimulate sexual arousal (eroticism) and man’s virility.

In ancient Greece, the plant was a chthonian symbol associated to the cult of the dead and the underworld divinities, probably because of its strong smell and the dark colour of its leaves, which were used as garlands for the dead. It is also believed that celery was part of the ritual of the “mysteries” celebrated in the Greek city of Thebes, and in the islands of Samothrace and Lemnos, in honour of the chthonian divinities called Cabeiri.

The ancient Greeks regarded celery so highly that the wreaths for the winners at the Isthmian Games were first made of celery before being replaced by pine. And according to Pliny the Elder, the garlands worn by the winners of the Nemean Games were also made of celery leaves.

We find other ancient literary references to celery in Homer’s Iliad where he mentions that the horses of the Myrmidons graze on wild celery that grows in the marshes of Troy, and in the Odyssey where he says that Calypso’s cave is surrounded by meadows of violet and wild celery.

Also the ancient Greek colony of Selinunte (Selinus in Latin), in Sicily, was named after the celery plant that grew there wild and in abundance, and the symbol of the city was a leaf of celery. This symbol is depicted on Selinuntian coins of that period.

But the Greeks were not the only ancient people to praise celery. Egyptians, too, seemed to have used the plant in celebrations associated with the cult of dead, and garlands of celery leaves and inflorescences were found in the tomb of Tutankhamun.

I’d nevertheless like to call your attention to the fact that it is not always sure that all ancient references do relate to celery and not to parsley. The same legends and mentions often appear relating to parsley, and in ancient times there seemed to have been a little confusion between the two plants. Under the origin of the name I develop this issue a little more.

It is only after the Renaissance that cultivation of the celery plant started in Europe.

Origin of the name: Celery’s scientific name is apium graviolens L., which means “strongly smelling” (Latin gravis grave, heavy, and olens smelling from the verb olere). The common name in English derives from the French “céleri”, in turn originated from the Lombard Italian dialect seleri (plural of selero) which comes from Late Latin selenon, the latinisation of the Greek word selenon meaning “Moon’s plant”, since Selene was the Greek goddess of the Moon. The earliest attested form of the word is the Mycenaean Greek se-ri-no, written in Linear B syllabic script.

As selenon seems to have been as well the name for parsley in Ancient Greece, I’m always suspicious as to whether ancient references do mean celery or parsley. If still in the 21st century translations and transliterations are sometimes a source of graphic and semantic mistakes, we may well understand that similar mistakes could have happened more easily in ancient times.

How to grow celery: Celery is a biannual plant native to the Mediterranean region where it grew wild. Celery is not a demanding plant in terms of soil and water needs, but if cultivated in a pot, it requires a little more watering, especially in summer. Mulching is essential to keep the moisture and growth constant, and it helps avoid weeds. Celery can be grown in all but extreme climates, although it prefers cool temperate weather, of between 58°F and 80°F (15°C-26°C).

There are three main varieties of celery grown today: dulce (celery), rapaceum (celeriac) and secalinum (leaf celery). Plant at a distance of about 30 cm (1ft) apart; if cultivated in a pot, this must have at least a 30 cm (1ft) diameter.

Health benefits of celery: Celery leaves are a source of vitamins A, B and C. The celery plant is also a rich supply of sodium, potassium (antioxidant), phosphorus, calcium, magnesium, and other minerals. Celery may also act as a relief for inflammations like rheumatoid arthritis, and helps lower blood pressure. It also helps eliminate toxins and relieve constipation. As a source of phytoestrogens, celery is useful during menopause.

Celery is believed to fight against memory loss, as it helps relax the muscle around arteries, dilating the vessels and allowing blood to flow normally. As a consequence, blood reaches certain brain areas otherwise less irrigated as we grow old, and may prevent against mental illnesses that usually appear at old age.

Individuals who are salt-sensitive can safely take the natural organic sodium (salt) in celery, especially in celery juice. Due to its very low content of calories, you can eat a lot of celery without worrying about your weight; celery is used in weight-loss diets. The plant is also known for its diuretic action.

Celery may as well be effective in cases of psoriasis, vitiligo, and other skin diseases because it causes hyperpigmentation.

How to use celery: Celery is a wonderful veggie we should use more often in our culinary preparations, and all its parts are good for consumption, either rough or cooked: leaves, crispy ribs, roots. When eaten rough, chew it well for a better digestion. If cooked, add it to soups (leaves and bulb), stews (leaves), scrambled eggs, rice… for a good flavour. In other words, celery may be used more or less in all culinary preparations, and some people use the plant also to give flavour to liqueurs and even in tea.

Fresh or dried, celery can also be used to decorate dishes, to stimulate our appetite and to help digestion. Celery should be part of a balanced and healthy diet.

Celery salt is a flavoured salt made from dried celeriac; it is used as a food seasoning for tomato juice, and in particular by individuals who follow a salt-free diet.

When buying celery, make sure that its leaves are well green, and the ribs still very firm, not limp. Wrap celery in a plastic bag or a camp cloth, and store in the fridge. Don’t store for more than 3-4 days; vegetables and herbs loose very easily their nutrients. On the other hand, while many foods lose nutrients during cooking, most of the compounds in celery hold up well during cooking.

1 tablespoon of roots or fresh leaves for 1 litre of water

Take 1 cup three times a day.

Infusion or decoction (dysentery, colitis and anaemia)
30 g of leaves for 1 litre of water
Take 1 cup three times a day.

Infusion or decoction (laryngitis and bronchitis)
25 g of roots or seeds for 1 litre of water
Take 1 cup three times a day. In case of asthmatic bronchitis, add honey and take every morning on an empty stomach.

Celery (leaves) juice (nephritis, hepatitis, other infections with fever)
Take 1 cup per day, split in 3 to 4 takings.

Ground dried roots (ulcer cicatrisation)
Sprinkle the powder 2 times a day on open sores (ulcers) that will not heal or keep returning.

Poultice (wounds and bruises)
Use celery leaves as a poultice, and place it 2 times a day on the wound.

Safety precautions: though celery has been used for millennia not only as a vegetable and an aromatic herb but also for its health benefits, you’d better listen to your body when you take celery. Some people may develop certain allergies to the plant: skin problems, difficulty in breathing and other allergic reactions, the most dangerous being anaphylaxis. This is due to the fact that celery is such a succulent plant that it produces its own "pesticide" to protect itself from fungi. This protective layer is called “psoralen”, and although it protects the celery, may not go down so well with some individuals.

© Dulce Rodrigues


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