The month of November brings with it Thanksgiving and memories of the (usually) hectic preparation of the traditional Thanksgiving dinner. The aroma of celery busily being diced is one of those memories for most people. Although turkey, pumpkin pie, candied sweet potatoes and cranberry sauce might dominate the Thanksgiving meal, it simply is not complete without celery to add flavor to the dressing or crunch to a salad.
Unlike turkey, pumpkin, sweet potato and cranberry, celery is not native to the Americas and was not present at the first Thanksgiving feast. As a matter of fact, it was not until the early 1800's that celery found its way into American gardens. Today, however, it ranks as one of our most popular vegetables and is used in many ways throughout the year.
Celery (Apium graveolens var. dulce) is a member of the Umbelliferae or parsley family. Additional familiar vegetables in this family include carrot, parsley and parsnip. Celery's common name comes from the French word celeri and the Italian seleri. Both were derived from the Greek word selinon, meaning parsley. Indeed, in Homer's Odyssey reference is made to selinon.
The parent to our modern celery is believed to have originated in the Mediterranean region of Europe and was used by early civilizations for the medicinal properties they thought it contained. Medieval books on herbal remedies suggested using celery for controlling hysteria, soothing nerves, and promoting restful sleep. Even though the presumed medicinal properties of celery have been disproven, it still is considered a "health food" (of sorts) because of its low caloric value and significant fiber content.
Celery was probably first used as a food by the French around 1623. For about the next century its use was confined to flavoring because of the pungency of early types. The late 17th and early 18th century saw improvements of the wild types of celery making its stalks (petioles) better for use in salads. Gardeners also found that growing celery during cooler parts of the year tended to reduce its pungency.
By the middle part of the 18th century celery stored in cellars was enjoyed by the more affluent people of northern Europe during the winter. Its use as a food spread rapidly after that time. It most likely was introduced to America by the colonists and, by 1806, four cultivated varieties were listed. In the United States today, the variety 'Pascal' dominates commercial production.
Celery is a biennial plant. This means it produces lush, leafy growth the first year, goes dormant during the winter, and flowers and bears seeds the second year. As a vegetable crop, it is grown for only the first year until plants are large enough to harvest. In Missouri, celery is planted early in the spring as soon as the soil is workable. Since celery is susceptible to damage by late spring frosts, hot caps or floating row covers may be necessary to protect it. Plants should be spaced seven inches apart within rows that are 24 inches apart. Started plants can be purchased from retail outlets or gardeners can grow their own transplants from seeds planted indoors or in cold frames.
Celery grows best where temperatures are cool and soils are deep and fertile. Unless soil has an inherently high organic matter content (a rare occurrence in Missouri), the addition of about three to four bushels of compost or well-decomposed manure to each 100 square feet of garden area is recommended for celery production. Organic matter should be incorporated thoroughly into the soil to a depth of about eight inches.
Celery also needs plenty of moisture. This especially is true when it is grown in warmer areas such as Missouri. Moisture supply must be constant although soil drainage must be good at the same time. The ability to irrigate celery during time of drought stress is very important, even when the stress lasts only a few days.
As with other vegetables, celery requires adequate nutrition. When preparing soil for planting celery a general purpose garden fertilizer should be incorporated. Two to three pounds of 12-12-12 per 100 square feet of garden should suffice. Additional side-dressing with nitrogen several times during the growing season also is necessary to promote vigorous growth.
Insect pests of celery include aphids, armyworms, flea beetles, leaf hoppers and cabbage loopers. Common diseases include root rot, pink rot, early and late blight, bacterial blight, asters yellows, and fusarium yellows, along with several virus diseases vectored by leaf hoppers. Good soil drainage along with strict sanitation and leaf hopper control helps greatly to prevent diseases from occurring.
Newer varieties of celery are fairly upright in their growth habit and another procedure in celery production is known as blanching. The latter helps to reduce the green color (chlorophyll) in the stems which results in superior quality. Blanching can be accomplished simply by tying the tops of the stems together or covering the plants with a cylinder formed out of several sheets of newspaper. Yet a third method involves placing boards supported by stakes on either side of the row, covering the stems. With any method, blanching usually requires 10 to 14 days.
Celery is considered ready for harvest when its stalks are at least six inches in length between soil line and first node. Given its high water content, it should be refrigerated immediately after harvest and kept at a relative humidity of 95%. Plastic bags can help to accommodate the latter.
Since celery contains only 18 calories per serving of 110 grams (3.9 ounces), it has long been considered a "diet food" whose consumption imparts a feeling of "fullness" without ingesting a significant number of calories. While this may be true, it does not give celery the credit it deserves as a source of essential nutrients. That same 110 grams can supply as much as 44 percent of the average adult's minimum daily requirement of vitamin K as well as 10 percent of the vitamin A and 6 percent of the vitamin C requirement. Celery also serves as a good source of riboflavin, vitamin B6, pantothenic acid, calcium, magnesium and phosphorus.
REVISED: October 11, 2011