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If you love celery you will be delighted to discover that it is one of the world’s healthiest foods.

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Celery "Utah Tall" Picture courtesy www.ballstraathof.co.zaCelery "Utah Tall" Picture courtesy www.ballstraathof.co.zaWhether you consider celery to be a vegetable or herb, bland and boring, or delightfully unique in flavour, celery remains one of the world’s healthiest foods and a required addition to many classic dishes. In many countries it is served as a vegetable and in others the seeds, stems and leaves are used for flavouring as well as medicinally.

The celery we know today is a direct descendant of the wild celery (Apium graveolens) commonly called “smallage”. A member of the parsley or carrot family, this wild celery can be found growing on boggy riversides and marshy ground, giving a clue to its growth requirements. It has been cultivated since antiquity, and although it is thought to be from the Mediterranean region where it has been cultivated since at least 3,000 years ago, the "wild" relatives of celery can be traced from the British Isles to Sweden, Algeria, Egypt, China, and India. Celery was cultivated in Egypt about 3,000 years ago and the seeds were buried with the pharaohs for strength in the afterlife; and the ancient Chinese ate it to slow down the ageing process.

Celery seeds come from smallage and today, in some parts of the world celery is grown primarily for its beneficial seeds, which are actually a very small type of fruit. A large region in the Punjab, India, is dedicated to celery seed production for export into Europe, where it is commonly used as a spice when crushed. The fruits also contain a special oily compound called “apiol” that is used as a flavouring agent as well as for its many medicinal uses. The stalks of smallage are very stringy and not very good eating, but the strong, bitter flavour of its leaves can be used finely diced in salads; and in France smallage is used in soups and stews because it gives a more concentrated flavour than domesticated celery.

Because all the early types of celery were very bitter, from classical times through to the Middle Ages the plant was mostly regarded as a medicinal plant to treat anxiety, insomnia, arthritis, rheumatism, gout and even toothache. Milder domesticated varieties of smallage probably first appeared in Italy around the 1500s, though they are only first mentioned in print in 1623 by Oliver de Serres, a French botanist. These milder tasting varieties ensured celery's popularity continued to grow, and during Victorian times it became a traditional salad vegetable to accompany the cheese board, served at the end of meals over the Christmas period. In the 19th century celery was cultivated by farmers in a naturally marshy region in eastern England called the East Anglian Fens where the plants thrived. At that time the farmers of the “Fenlands” discovered that they could prolong their harvest into the colder months in order to increase the price. They did this by covering the stems of the plants with soil, called "earthing up" to protect them from frost. Not only did this practice improve profit margins, the blanching of the stems and the cooler temperatures also mellowed the strong flavours of the plant. Most of the fens were drained, resulting in a flat, dry, low-lying agricultural region, but the selection and breeding of celery continued.

Celeriac Picture courtesy Owen Rhys WilliamsCeleriac Picture courtesy Owen Rhys WilliamsCeleriac Picture courtesy Owen Rhys WilliamsAbout 50 years ago varieties of celery were introduced which could be blanched without being earthed up, natural blanching occurred when the rows were planted closely together to shade their stems. These varieties were also resistant to bolting to seed, and could be planted earlier. This paler white celery may have extended the growing season, but the taste and shelf life of the old varieties had largely been lost. Today, green celery has become more popular than the traditional white variety, and in the last 25 years or so, by selecting varieties with the best flavour and growing characteristics, new varieties and growing techniques have been developed to achieve the desired 'salad eating' taste and appearance of the celery we eat today. The greener varieties which are related to the old Fenland varieties won through this selection process hands down, and by happy coincidence also had better storage qualities. So, green celery, the direct descendant of the traditional celery is now available all year round.

Celeriac (Apium graveolens rapaceum) is a celery variety refined over time. Aboveground it produces a gorgeously symmetrical crown of green, celery-like growth radiating from a central knob. However, pull up this pretty green crown and what you unearth looks like a troll's orb of warts and roots, but do not be dissuaded, when peeled, celeriac root is creamy white, resembling that of a turnip. Also known as celery root, knob celery and turnip-rooted celery, celeriac developed from the same wild species as did stalk celery. It did not become an important vegetable until the Middle Ages and was first recorded as a food plant in France in 1623, and was commonly cultivated in most of Europe by the end of the 17th century. The white flesh tastes like celery and is still an historic favourite in many European cuisines. Celeriac also had medicinal and religious uses in many other early civilizations, including those of Egypt, and today it is cultivated in North Africa, Siberia, Southwest Asia, and North America.

Celery has long been known by dieters because not only does it only have about 16 calories per cup, it is also worth its weight in dietary fibre, boosting digestion and weight loss. It is also an excellent source of antioxidants and beneficial enzymes, in addition to vitamins and minerals such as vitamin K, A and C, potassium, calcium, folate and Vitamin B6. Although it isn’t strong in conventional nutrients, celery does contain dozens of phytonutrients, a substance found in certain plants and which is believed to be beneficial to human health, helping to prevent various diseases. Research is currently been done on its effectiveness for preventing or treating several forms of cancer, multiple sclerosis, allergies, neuro-generative diseases, as well as improving learning and memory. In recent pharmacological studies, celery demonstrated both antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activities which help improve blood pressure and cholesterol levels and helping to prevent heart disease. Because celery, and especially the seeds, helps in the elimination of uric acid, celery is great to detoxify the system and a wonderful treatment for arthritis and rheumatism sufferers. The seed is also taken internally in the form of pills for relieving pain. In addition, celery’s high percentage of water and electrolytes can prevent dehydration, and special compounds help celery to act as a diuretic and reduce bloating. As a supplier of antioxidant flavonoids and polyphenol phytonutrients, other significant benefits of celery include its ability to improve liver, skin, eye and cognitive health.

What is called “a holy trinity” in cooking is simply a combination of three aromatic ingredients, whether they are vegetables, herbs or spices that are gently sautéed together to provide a flavour base for other ingredients to build upon. These ingredients are usually gently cooked in either butter or olive oil to release their flavours and are commonly used when creating soups, sauces, stews, or braises. These foundation or base flavours of so many of the world's greatest dishes are often made from a simple trinity of aromatic vegetables like celery, onions and carrots, and once they have imparted their flavours they become the background flavour for flashier, more obvious spices, vegetables, freshwater fish, seafood and meats in a dish. When used in broths etc. the vegetables are discarded afterwards.

Classic “Holy Trinity” combinations with celery include: "Mirepoix" a French mixture consisting of onions, carrots and celery is the trio of aromatics you'll hear about most when making recipes like: Chicken 'n Dumplings; Hearty Winter Vegetable Soup; Roast Turkey Soup and Short Rib and Barley Stew.  Germany's "Suppengrün" of carrots, celeriac and leeks literally means soup greens and is included in recipes like Beef Sauerbraten with Red Cabbage and Pretzel Dumplings. Italian “soffritto”, “odori” or “battuto” usually includes onions, celery and carrots. Parsley, garlic and fennel, or sometimes finely diced cured meats like pancetta or prosciutto scraps can also find their way into the Italian battuto/soffritto mix, which is used to flavour dishes like; Hearty Escarole; Barley and Parmesan Soup; Ragú Bolognese and Polenta with Sugo Finto. The Polish “wloszczyzna” is a mix of vegetables and includes carrots, root parsley, celery and leek, and often savoy or white cabbage. It is used in recipes like: Polish Cabbage; Potato and Bacon Casserole and Borsch, All Spiced Up. At the core of Cajun and Creole cookery you don't find many regional variations within the Holy Trinity trio of onions, celery, and green bell peppers. Often, by adding a bit of flour and whisking, a roux is built right on top of these sweet and colourful aromatics to form the base of gumbo, étouffée, and other famous Cajun and Creole dishes like: Grilled Chicken and Sausage Jambalaya; Chicken and Smoked Sausage Gumbo and Quicker Chicken and Okra Gumbo.

As celery is usually sold as a whole bulb, once you’ve taken away a stick or two for your spaghetti Bolognese, there’s a lot left to play with, so be adventurous and use more celery in your dishes. Use celery when making vegetable, meat or fish stock. Its hardy nature means it can withstand being cooked for several hours, and it won’t leach any colour into the stock. Use the main stalks for flavour, by cutting them into large chunks so they don’t disintegrate. The thin leafy ends can be used as part of a “bouquet garni” - a bundle of herbs bound together to add flavour to stocks and sauces. Raw, celery is a grab-and-go food, with a satisfying crunch and a handy groove for holding anything spreadable. Serve trimmed stalks raw with cheese, or chopped into salads to add a refreshing crisp bite. Celery leaves also make a great addition to stir-fries and soups and the ground seeds make a great seasoning for dozens of dishes.
Fresh celery is always best, but if you love to cook and are often pressed for time, when you do have a little to spare, chop together some onion, celery, and carrots in the ‘all important’ ratio of 2:1:1 and store them in your freezer in air-tight bags. The vegetables do not suffer from the freezing process and freezing will cut down on prepping time. Besides, you will always have this flavour base handy when you want to throw together a quick pasta sauce, soup, or even create a crock-pot stew.

Fresh celery should have crisp long stems attached to a sound base and the leaves should be vibrant and green. It should have tightly packed, firm heads with no brown patches on the outer layers. To prepare celery the stalks need to be cut away from the base and washed thoroughly before being sliced or diced.  

Celery is really robust and often lasts for several weeks in the refrigerator. Store it with the stalks attached to the base until you need to use them. You can rinse and chop up raw celery then freeze it on baking sheets for a few hours before transferring to plastic bags.  It will keep in the freezer for a few months.  Alternatively, blanch diced celery in boiling water for a minute before freezing for up to 6 months.

Celeriac may appear to be just an ugly knobbly root, but when peeled and cooked, this ugly duckling vegetable will become a true culinary swan. Its ivory coloured flesh is crispy when raw and silky smooth when cooked, with a delicate taste which suggests the flavours of celery and parsley combined with a slight nuttiness. Additionally, half a cup contains only 30 calories, no fat and an excellent source of dietary fibre.

Celeriac may be roasted, stewed, blanched, or mashed. To prepare celeriac, scrub well and cut off the skin quite thickly to remove any brown bits and the root channels in the base. Place the cut pieces in water with a squeeze of lemon juice to prevent discolouration. To serve raw, grate or cut into thin sticks; or blanch briefly in boiling water for a slightly softer, smoother texture. Try boiling cubed celeriac until tender before mashing it together with potatoes and garlic, or other root vegetables. Sliced celeriac occurs as an ingredient in many soups, stews, casseroles, and other savoury dishes; and roasted, it is excellent served with meat. The young leaves and stems of the vegetable are also quite flavoursome, and aesthetically delicate and vibrant enough to be used as a garnish, in contemporary fine dining.
Try something special like the excellent French “Celerie Remoulade” in which the root is peeled and grated before being "cooked" in lemon juice, or blanched briefly in acidulated water to lose a bit of its rawness before being dressed with a mustardy aioli. Aioli is a garlic flavoured mayonnaise of Provence which is served with fish and seafood and often with vegetables. The texture of celerie remoulade differs somewhat from standard remoulades with their creamy texture, and is actually closer in consistency to a Cole slaw. Besides celeriac, other common ingredients in a remoulade can include onion and pickles or almost anything which can be chopped up in a base of mayonnaise, including hard-boiled eggs.

Fresh celeriac is always best and it can be refrigerated in an unsealed plastic bag for 2 to 3 weeks. It can even last for months if stored between 0°C and 5°C, but before storing for long, remove all the finer stems surrounding the base of the plant, or the vegetable will tend to rot through the centre. Fresh celeriac will have a firm centre, while old celeriac will have a hollow centre.

There are several varieties of celery to choose from for the home gardener. Try to find a variety that matches your growing conditions with the plant characteristics that you desire. Besides smallage and leaf celery, the table celery we grow in our gardens today does best in climates with either very mild winters, where it is a good winter crop, or in climates with cool summers. It does not do well in extreme climates. Too much frost and it will burn; too much heat and it will also suffer. A mild climate, regular watering and an organically rich soil are ideal.

Smallage (Apium graveolens) is the wild ancestor of the celery we know today and is cultivated mainly for its fruit which is used for cooking and medicinal purposes. The plant will also supply ample tender young leaves and stalks for soups and stews. This cold hardy and robust biennial herb produces slender, hollow stalks and grows up to 1m tall. In its second year of growth flat, umbrella-like umbels with masses of tiny white blooms appear, and are followed by an abundance of fruits.

Leaf Celery, Cutting Celery (Apium graveolens var. secalinum) is a more primitive form of the familiar supermarket celery and closely resembles its relative “smallage”. This very cold hardy, robust plant will take some shade, and is rarely affected by pests or diseases, making it one of the easiest types of celery to grow in the kitchen garden. Because it only grows about 20 to 25cm tall, is also an excellent candidate for containers. Leaf celery is used mainly as a pot herb, and when harvested in small amounts as required, constantly sends up new stalks. It forms a bushy branching plant with glossy leaves and thin, hollow stems. Crisp and packed with flavour, cutting celery is wonderful to use in cooked dishes. In early summer of its second year of growth, the plant sends up umbels with masses of tiny white flowers. The abundance of fruits which follow the flowers can be harvested for culinary purposes. If the plants are properly managed in the garden, and if a few plants are allowed to drop their seeds naturally, leaf celery will establish itself as is a true biennial, reseeding itself in the garden.

Chinese Celery (Apium graveolens var. secalinum “Kintsai”) is a very hardy dwarf form which grows easily and can be grown in pots. It has been used for centuries in Chinese cooking for its small vivid green leaves and stems which have a peppery, celery flavour that sweetens when cooked. It is used in stir fries, soups, stews and rice dishes or added raw (sparingly) to salads for a bit of a kick. It is fast growing and produces high yields.
Apium graveolens var. dulce is the celery often seen in grocery stores. It is cultivated as an annual crop for its crisp, edible leaf stalks, which can reach 50 to 76cm tall. Unlike its tough wild cousins, ‘dulce’ is fussy about its growing conditions and requires a long, cool growing season. The thick, crunchy stalks are ready for harvest in 105 to 130 days and all stalks should be harvested prior to the first significant frost. It requires deep, rich but well-drained soil and regular watering and feeding throughout the season.

Apium graveolens "Giant Pascal" is a popular French heirloom variety with upright heads and crisp, flavourful stalks which may be served raw or cooked. It has a vigorous habit and grows about 60cm tall with thick bright green ribs with dark green leaves. This early maturing variety requires blanching.

Apium graveloens "Golden Self-Blanching" celery is a strong, disease resistant plant that produces thick, crisp, juicy, deeply ribbed, aromatic stalks of celery which become creamy-white at maturity without blanching and with no hint of bitterness or stings. Because it matures quicker than other celery and is a smaller growing variety, 40 to 60cm tall, it is great for home gardens and a good pot candidate. Stems can be harvested as required or the whole plant can be harvested at once.

Apium graveloens "Conquistador" is known for its rich taste, producing multiple stalks which are crisp and upright. It grows 30 to 45cm tall and because it is more resistant to bolting, is a good variety for growing in hotter climates where rainfall is not consistent.

Apium graveloens “Tall Utah” is tall and vigorous, growing about 76cm. It requires blanching and is dark green with a nice aroma and strong flavour. It is a late growing variety and should be planted in late summer for an autumn harvest. Mature plants will last into winter with light frost protection.

Celeriac (Apium graveolens var. rapaceum) is a type of celery that is grown for its large, swollen, brown-skinned root, which is delicious peeled and cooked or even raw. Celeriac has the same growth requirements as celery and takes 100 to 120 days to grow a mature root ready for harvest from seed. This type of celery likes coastal growing conditions.

Smallage and Leaf or Cutting Celery are the easiest to grow because they are hardy and can tolerate low temperatures. Table or salad celery, however, is a long-season crop that many people consider to be tricky to grow because it requires very fertile soil, constant moisture, and cool growing temperatures. It will not tolerate heat and can be hard to transplant.  Although there are varieties which will tolerate light frost, generally this type of celery does not like frost and must be harvested before your first frost date. The Utah type of green celery, which includes a number of varieties, is the most popular celery grown in South Africa, and one of the most popular self-blanching cultivars is Golden Self-blanching. If you plant the right variety of celery for your region at the right time, and give it what it loves, you will find celery a surprisingly reliable crop.

Because celery does not like excessive heat it is best sown as an intermediate to cool season crop in South Africa when the temperatures remain between 13°C and 24°C. Extended periods with temperatures remaining below 13°C will cause the plants to bolt and set seed.  On the other hand, when maximum daily temperatures consistently rise above 24°C, the edible stalks become more fibrous, and tend to develop a bitter flavour. Most of the country is quite hot in summer, so crops are best sown indoors to plant out in early spring or alternatively in late summer and autumn for winter crops. Celery is also liable to bolt or run to flower and seed if shocked or chilled during transplanting or growth. To prevent this, make sure the plants are properly ‘hardened off’ (acclimatised to outdoor conditions) before planting out in spring, and ensure that the temperatures are constant.

Celery grows best in a sunny position which receives at least 6 hours of direct sunlight a day. Sandy to heavier loam soils, which are slightly acid (pH about 6.0) and rich in humus, are the most suitable for growing celery, and although the plants are fairly shallow-rooted, the ideal soils are relatively deep, fertile, and well-drained. Prepare the beds thoroughly and incorporate lots of organic material like compost and mature kraal manure, together with a balanced organic fertiliser like 2:3:2. Once the beds are prepared and raked over, dig trenches 20 to 30 cm wide and 30cm deep. Space the plants 18cm to 20cm apart in the rows with 40cm inter-row spacing. Celery requires lots of water and the plants should never be allowed to dry out completely. This is especially important if the weather turns hot and dry. Feed with a high nitrogen fertiliser every two weeks for succulent stems. Ensure you keep the beds free of weeds which compete with the plants for moisture and nutrition.

For varieties like cutting celery which does not require blanching and others that are self-blanching, plant out 23cm apart in a block, this will ensure that the plants shade each other and naturally aid in blanching. If you need to blanch the stems, be sure to allow sufficient space between the rows so that once the plants are more mature, you can mound up the soil against the stems. Start blanching when the stems are 30cm tall, or at least 3 weeks before harvesting. Alternatively, use collars made of corrugated cardboard, brown paper, newspaper, black plastic or even a plastic drainpipe or something similar. Make sure the leaves are sticking out of the top to gather energy from the sun.

Celery is excellent to grow in containers about 30cm wide and deep. Container plants will require more regular watering than plants growing in the ground and should be fed every fortnight with a liquid general purpose fertiliser that is high in nirogen.

Celery plants grow slowly when planted from seed and can take about 90 days from date of sowing to transplanting. Although seed gives the gardener more varieties to choose from than nursery grown plants, for a quicker start, purchase celery plants from your garden centre, which will reach maturity quicker than seed-started plants. For an early summer crop, celery and celeriac seeds should be sown about 10 weeks before your average final spring frost date. Celery seed is minute and should be sown into seedling trays or individual pots. They are surface-sown and not covered with soil, or covered only minimally. Keep the soil uniformly moist until the seedlings have germinated and are growing strongly. Germination can be erratic and take anything from 14 to 20 days. Seeds do not germinate well at temperatures above 20°C. Chilling dampened seed in the refrigerator for about 48 hours tends to overcome this. Some gardeners advocate soaking the seeds in warm water overnight prior to planting, to reduce germination time.

Leaf and cutting celery can be harvested as required but blanched celery is usually harvested all at once, although you can harvest the odd stalk from the outside of the plant as required. Celeriac is harvested when its root is about 10 to 14cm in diameter. However, a growing trend, especially in Peruvian and South American cuisine, is to use the immature vegetable because of its overall tenderness and intensity of flavour.

Cutworms may be a problem immediately after transplanting. Watch out for slugs and snails who love to feed on the young seedlings. A direct and steady spray of water will displace aphids from the plants. This should be done before the sun is directly overhead so plants will not be scorched. Earwigs, nematodes and cabbage loppers can also become a problem. Cardboard collars sunk into the ground around plants and light row covers should be used to prevent cutworms and cabbage loppers.

Root rot may develop in overly wet soils and leaf spot as well as early and late blight can cause significant problems in some areas. Leaf spot is a fungal disease that causes dark brown or grey spots on the leaves. Symptoms of early blight are first visible as yellow circular spots on the leaves, and with late blight the chlorotic spots occur on mature leaves and stalks, later turning grey with black pinpoint-sized spore-forming structures embedded in the spots.  Under severe conditions unprotected leaves will blacken, and the plant has a withered appearance. Of the registered fungicides for use on celery, copper oxychloride can be fairly effective as a protective spray against leaf spot and blight infection.

A condition known as cracked stem is caused by a deficiency of boron. Symptoms of the condition are longitudinal brown streaking on the inner surface of petioles, and cracks along the ridges of the outer surface. Blackheart results from calcium deficiency, the young heart-leaves of a plant develop dark water-soaked tips, and the affected areas turn black as they dry. Foliar feeding with a trace element mixture like Trelmix which contains micro-nutrients will be beneficial to prevent both boron and calcium deficiencies.

A deficiency of magnesium is expressed by chlorosis or yellowing, especially on leaf tissues between the veins, of older leaves.  A spray of trace element solution like Trelmix or an application of one percent magnesium sulphate (Epsom Salts) should correct the condition; the application can be repeated to foliage about ten days later.

Caution: Celery ranks among the most allergenic of vegetables. The experience of an itchy throat or swollen lips after eating raw or cooked celery, or an herbal product containing celery seeds, may be “oral allergy syndrome,” which is generally mild, but can occasionally be life-threatening. The celery allergy usually appears in people allergic to birch and certain other pollens, and the reaction to celery or its leaves or seeds may be most pronounced while the offending plants are pollinating.


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