Seasoning of the South
Story and Photos by A.J. Heinsz-Bailey
Celery (Apium graveolens) is a well-known element of Cajun and Creole cuisine. Along with bell pepper and onion, it is a member of the “Holy Trinity” seasoning mix. You don’t have to be French to appreciate the distinctive earthy aroma of homegrown celery. Jambalaya and etouffée are just the beginning of recipes that utilize the tantalizing taste. Let the smell permeate your kitchen as you use celery in appetizers, soups, salads, and stuffings. Before beginning your plantings make sure you are not allergic to celery. It is among a small group of foods (headed by peanuts) that cause severe allergic reactions (anaphylaxis) in people.
Believed to have originated in the Mediterranean basin, physicians there used celery seed as a medicine for treating treat colds in the 1600s. By the 1800s the French, Italians, and English were consuming the stalks and celery rose in popularity. Our modern day store celery (Pascal type) evolved in the 1890s. Fairs were held to see who could grow the biggest plants. In the early 1900s celery declined in popularity but it’s once again on the rise. A recently new use is for juicing. Juicing is the extraction of liquid from fresh fruits or vegetables. The resulting liquid contains vitamins, minerals, and nutrients in an easy to drink form. Celery selections in supermarkets are very limited, so increase your options by growing your own.
Select a site that receives full sunlight. Soil rich in organic matter with a pH between 5.8 and 6.7 is ideal for this heavy feeding vegetable. The soil should have good water retention and draining capabilities. Readily available online for ordering, celery seeds are viable for four to seven years. Celery is a cool-season biennial. It prefers temperatures between 60-80 F for best growth. Seeds can be sown in October and November, directly in the soil. Soaking the seeds for half an hour in 100 F water before planting will help with germination, which is in 10-18 days. Barely cover the tiny seeds, as they need light to germinate. Keep the seeds moist. Sow extra seeds to account for the fact that germination is typically low for celery (50 percent). As they start to emerge, mulch around them. If you want to grow your own transplants, sow seeds indoors 10-12 weeks before the last spring frost. Keep the soil temperature in the 60-65 F range. A heating mat works great. Plant transplants in the garden in December and January. Premature bolting will occur if plants are exposed to nighttime temperatures below 55 F for more than eight to 10 days. Space the transplants 8 inches apart in rows 2½ feet apart. You might have to use a frost blanket to keep the transplants warm if unseasonal weather occurs. Celery grows well when daytime temperatures are 55-85 F.
Unlike tomatoes or beans, which have several varieties to choose from, there are few options for celery. Cutting or leaf celery grows well in Louisiana. It is darker green, with thin, round, pliable stalks and aromatic leaves. It tastes like regular stalk celery, but with a slightly stronger flavor. Cutting celery can be grown in containers as a cut and-come-again salad crop. Move this plant inside in winter to extend the usable season. Remember, even watering is the key to success. Stalks will become stringy if they do not receive adequate moisture. Cutting celery varieties to try include ‘Flat Leaf’, ‘Peppermint Stick’, ‘Tango’, and ‘Calypso’. Commercial production of celery is dominated by the pascal-type celery. The stalks grow in a tight, straight, parallel bunch, and are typically marketed fresh without roots and just a little green leaf remaining. Some stalk celery varieties are ‘Giant Pascal’, ‘Conquistador’, ‘Florida 683’, and ‘Utah 52-70R’. Self-blanching varieties for Southern gardens include ‘Golden Self-Blanching’ and ‘Golden Boy’.
Adequate watering, along with a long cool growing season, are the two main requirements for successful celery. Watering this shallow-rooted, moisture-loving crop is the major task during the long 80-120 day growing season. Celery roots are short, reaching, only 6-8 inches away from the plant and 2-3 inches deep. Inadequate watering will result in tough, stringy celery. Prevent leaf problems by using soaker or drip hoses and use mulch to suppress weeds. Fertilize with nitrogen monthly. You can also side-dress plants with an organic nitrogen fertilizer, such as manure, fish emulsion, or blood meal.
The major insect pests of celery are slugs, aphids, and cabbage loopers. Slugs can be hand-picked but barriers are easier to use. The razor sharp fragments of diatomaceous earth are lethal to their soft bodies. Just sprinkle the DE around the celery plants. Other options include wire screen and tilted boards with grease on the undersides. Larvae of the eastern black swallowtail are sometimes seen in the vegetable garden. They are easily recognized by their bold stripes – black, yellow, white, and green – these guys are usually welcome, but be aware that, they will see your plants as their luncheon buffet.
Celery is subject to early and late blights, pink rot, and fusarium yellows. Visit your cooperative extension agent if you need help identifying and treating problems.
Your crop is ready to harvest whenever it reaches the size you desire. Using a sharp knife, you can either cut a few stalks at a time from the outside and leave the inner stalks for later use, or slice the entire plant off at the soil line. New stalks will likely appear making multiple harvests possible if you cut the plant down to 3 inches. Cut stalks can be stored in the refrigerator crisper drawer for seven to 10 days.
Celery is a reseeding biennial, meaning it produces umbels of white flowers, sets seed, and dies during its second year of growth. Leave a stalk to overwinter in your garden. Although somewhat frost hardy, your plants will need covering to successfully overwinter. Flowering will occur the following spring. The seeds mature at different times, so collect them as they dry on the plant. Store seeds in a cool, dry place. Seeds will remain viable for four to seven years.
In cocktails, salads, or soups, grilled or used as a flavor base, the celery stalk is a large component of Southern cuisine. Containing few calories, celery is a great source of fiber and vitamin C. Celery seeds are used as a spice in cooking. Their extracts are used in the perfume industry to create an earthy scent.
Whether it is seeds, stems, leaves, or roots, celery and its relatives have a lot to offer. In addition to Cajun cuisine, celery is used as a seasoning, in alcoholic beverages (to enhance the flavor of Bloody Marys), on the Chicago-style hot dog, and in Old Bay Seasoning. It might be a little tricky to grow but you will have about 130 days to get it right and lots of butterflies. All you’ll need is lots of cool weather and plenty of water and fertilizer.
Rib: A rib of celery is a single piece pulled off the larger bunch of celery. Another term for a rib is a leafstalk.
Midrib: The portion of the celery stalk between the root and the node from which the leafy part sprouts
Stalk: The leaf petiole. Same as a rib.
Blanching: The process of covering celery stalks to reduce bitterness and lighten the stalk’s color.
Surface sowing: A method of planting seeds very near the surface, rather than under the soil.
Collenchyma tissue: Elongated cells with irregularly thickened walls. They provide structural support for the celery stalk. We refer to them as celery strings.
Smallage: The wild form of celery. Grows up to 3 feet tall.
Celeriac or celery root (Apium graveolens Rapaceum Group): A relative of celery grown for its large taproot, instead of the leaves and stems.
Strings: The “strings” in a celery stalk are collenchyma tissue made up of thick-walled collenchyma cells that create a support structure for the plant. Collenchyma cells are filled with living protoplasm and sometimes chloroplasts. They are the plants vascular system.