Plant Guide > Herbs > Parsley herb

Parsley herb

Parsley herbParsley (Carum Petroselinum, Liun.) is a hardy biennial herb of the natural order Umbelliferae, native to Mediterranean shores, and cultivated for at least 2,000 years. The specific name is derived from the habitat of the plant, which naturally grows among rocks, the Greek word for which is petros. Many of the ancient writings contain references to it, and some give directions for its cultivation. The writings of the old herbalists of the 15th century show that in their times it had already developed several well-defined forms and numerous varieties, always a sure sign that a plant is popular. Throughout the world today it is unquestionably the most widely grown of all garden herbs, and has the largest number of varieties. In moist, moderately cool climates, it may be found wild as a weed, but nowhere has it become a pest.

Herb Description

Like most biennials, parsley develops only a rosette of leaves during the first year. These leaves are dark green, long stalked and divided two or three times into ovate, wedge-shaped segments, and each division either entire, as in parsnip, or more or less finely cut or "curled". During the second season the erect, branched, channeled flower stems rise 2 feet or more high, and at their extremities bear umbels of little greenish flowers. The fruits or seeds are light brown or gray, convex on one side and flat on the other two, the convex side marked with fine ribs. They retain their germinating power for three years. An interesting fast, observed by Palladius in 210 A.D., is that old seed germinates more freely than freshly gathered seed.


Parsley is so easily grown that no garden, and indeed no household, need be without it. After once passing the infant stage no difficulty need be experienced. It will thrive in any ordinary soil and will do well in a window box with only a moderate amount of light, and that not even direct sunshine. Gardeners often grow it beneath benches in greenhouses, where it gets only small amounts of light. No one need hesitate to plant it.

The seed is very slow in germinating, often requiring four to six weeks unless soaked before sowing. A full days soaking in tepid water is none too long to wake up the germs. The drills may be made in a cold frame during March or in the open ground during April.

It is essential that parsley be sown very early in order to germinate at all. If sown late, it may possibly not get enough moisture to sprout, and if so it will fail completely. When sown in cold frames or beds for transplanting, the rows may be only 3 or 4 inches apart, though it is perhaps better, when such distances are chosen, to sow each alternate row to forcing radishes, which will have been marketed by the time the parsley seedlings appear. In the open ground the drills should be 12 to 15 inches apart, and the seed planted somewhat deeper and farther apart than in the presumably better prepared seedbed or cold frame. One inch between seeds is none too little.

In field culture and at the distances mentioned six or seven pounds of seed will be needed for the acre. For cultivation on a smaller scale an ounce may be found sufficient for 50 to 100 feet of drill. This quantity should be enough for any ordinary-sized family. In all open ground culture the radish is the parsleys best friend, because it not only marks the rows, and thus helps early cultivation, but the
radishes break, loosen and shade the soil and thus aid the parsley plants.

When the first thinning is done during May, the parsley plants may be allowed to stand 2 inches asunder. When they begin to crowd at this distance each second plant may be removed and sold. Four to six little plants make a bunch. The roots are left on. This thinning will not only aid the remaining plants, but should bring enough revenue to pay the cost, perhaps even a little more. The first cutting of leaves from plants of field-sown seed should be ready by midsummer, but as noted below it is usually best to practice the method that will hasten maturity and thus catch the best price. A "bunch" is about the amount that can be grasped between the thumb and the first finger, 10 to 15 stalks.

It is usual to divide the field into three parts so as to have a succession of cuttings. About three weeks are required for a new crop of leaves to grow and mature after the plants have been cut. Larger yields can be secured by cutting only the fully matured leaves, allowing the others to remain and develop for later cuttings. Three or four times as much can be gathered from a given area in this way. All plain leaves of such plants injure the appearance and reduce the price of the bunches when offered for sale.

If protected from frost, the plants will yield all winter. They may be easily transplanted in cold frames. These should be placed in some warm, sheltered spot and the plants set in them 4 by 6 inches. Mats or shutters will be needed in only the coldest weather.

In the home garden, parsley may be sown as an edging for flower beds and borders. For such purpose it is best to sow the seed thickly during late October or November in double rows close together, say 3 or 4 inches. Sown at that time, the plants may be expected to appear earlier than if spring sown and to form a ribbon of verdure which will remain green not only all the growing season, but well into winter if desired. It is best, however, to dig them up in the fall and resow for the year succeeding.

For window culture, all that is needed is a box filled with rich soil. The roots may be dug in the fall and planted in the box. A sunny window is best, but any window will do. If space is at a premium, a nail keg may be made to yield a large amount of leaves. Not only may the tops be filled with plants, but the sides also. Holes should be bored in the staves about 4 inches apart. A layer of earth is placed in the bottom as deep as the lowest tier of holes. Then roots are pushed through these holes and a second layer of earth put in. The process is repeated till the keg is full. Then plants are set on the top. As the keg is being filled the earth should be packed very firmly, both around the plants and in the keg. When full the soil should be thoroughly soaked and allowed to drain before being taken to the window. To insure a supply of water for all the plants, a short piece of pipe should be placed in the center of the keg so as to reach about half way toward the bottom. This will enable water to reach the plants placed in the lower tiers of holes. If the leaves look yellow at any time, they may need water or a little manure water.

As parsley is grown for its leaves, it can scarcely be over fertilized. Like cabbage, but, of course, upon a smaller scale, it is a gross feeder. It demands that plenty of nitrogenous food be in the soil. That is, the soil should be well supplied with humus, preferably derived from decaying leguminous crops or from stable manure.

A common practice among market gardeners in the neighborhood of New York has been to sow the seed in their cold frames between rows of lettuce transplanted during March or early April. The lettuce is cut in May, by which time the parsley is getting up. When grown by this plan the crop may be secured four or five weeks earlier than if the seed is sown in the open ground. The first cutting may be made during June. After this first cutting has been made the market usually becomes overstocked and the price falls, so many growers do not cut again until early September when they cut and destroy the leaves preparatory to securing an autumn and winter supply.

When the weather becomes cool and when the plants have developed a new and sturdy rosette of leaves, they are transplanted in shallow trenches either in cold frames, in cool greenhouses (lettuce and violet houses), under the benches of greenhouses, or, in fact, any convenient place that is not likely to prove satisfactory for growing plants that require more heat and light.

This method, it must be said, is not now as popular near the large cities as before the development of the great trucking fields in the Atlantic coast states; but it is a thoroughly practical plan and well worth practicing in the neighborhood of smaller cities and towns not adequately supplied with this garnishing and flavoring herb.

When it is desired to supply the demand for American seed, which is preferred to European, the plants may be managed in any of the ways already mentioned, either allowed to remain in the field or transplanted to cold ffames, or greenhouses. If left in the field, they should be partially buried with litter or coarse manure. As the ground will not be occupied more than a third of the second season, a
crop of early beets, forcing carrots, radishes, lettuce or some other quick-maturing crop may be sown between the rows of parsley plants. Such crops will mature by the time the parsley seed is harvested in late May or early June, and the ground can then be plowed and fitted for some late crop such as early maturing but late-sown sweet corn, celery, dwarf peas, late beets or string beans.

When seed is desired, every imperfect or undesirable plant should be rooted out and destroyed, so that none but the best can fertilize each other. In early spring the litter must be either removed from the plants and the ground between the rows given a cultivation to loosen the surface, or it may be raked between the rows and allowed to remain until after seed harvest. In this latter case, of course, no other crop can be grown.

Like celery seed, parsley seed ripens very irregularly, some umbels being ready to cut from one to three weeks earlier than others. This quality of the plant may be bred out by keeping the earliest maturing seed separate from the later maturing and choosing this for producing subsequent seed crops. By such selection one to three weeks may be saved in later seasons, a saving of time not to be ignored in gardening operations.

In ordinary seed production the heads are cut when the bulk of the seed is brown or at least dark colored. The stalks are cut carefully, to avoid shattering the seed off. They are laid upon sheets of duck or canvas and threshed very lightly, at once, to remove only the ripest seed. Then the stalks are spread thinly on shutters or sheets in the sun for two days and threshed again. At that time all seed ripe enough to germinate will fall off. Both lots of seed must be spread thinly on the sheets in an airy shed or loft and turned daily for 10 days or two weeks to make sure they are thoroughly dry before being screened in a fanning mill and stored in sacks hung in a loft.


There are four well-defined groups of parsley varieties; common or plain, curled or moss-leaved, fern-leaved, and Hamburg. The last is also known as turnip-rooted or large-rooted. The objections to plain parsley are that it is not as ornamental as moss-leaved or fern-leaved sorts, and because it may be mistaken for fools parsley, a plant reputed to be more or less poisonous.

In the curled varieties the leaves are more or less deeply cut and the segments reflexed to a greater or less extent, sometimes even to the extent of showing the lighter green undersides. In this group are several subvarieties, distinguished by minor differences, such as extent of reflexing and size of the plants.

In the fern-leaved group the very dark green leaves are not curled but divided into numerous threadlike segments which give the plant a very delicate and dainty appearance.

Hamburg, turnip-rooted or large-rooted parsley, is little grown in America. It is not used as a garnish or an herb, but the root is cooked as a vegetable like carrots or beets. These roots resemble those of parsnips. They are often 6 inches long and 2 inches in diameter. Their cultivation is like that of parsnips. They are cooked and served like carrots. In flavor, they resemble celeriac or turnip-rooted celery, but are not so pleasing. In Germany the plant is rather popular, but, except by our German gardeners, it has been little cultivated in this country.

Pasley Uses

The Germans use both roots and tops for cooking; the former as a boiled vegetable, the latter as a potherb. In English cookery the leaves are more extensively used for seasoning fricassees and dressings for mild meats, such as chicken and veal, than perhaps anything else. In American cookery parsley is also popular for this purpose, but is most extensively used as a garnish. In many countries the green leaves are mixed with salads to add flavor. Often, especially among the Germans, the minced green leaves are mixed with other vegetables just before being served. For instance, if a liberal dusting of finely minced parsley be added to peeled, boiled potatoes, immediately after draining, this vegetable will seem like a new dish of unusual delicacy. The potatoes may be either served whole or mashed with a little butter, milk and pepper.

Parsley herb picture