PARSLEY (Petroselinum sativum/crispum – Umbelliferae)

Parsley is a hardy biennial herb which is native to the eastern Medi¬terranean. It is thought to have originated in Sardinia, but records show that seeds were imported to Britain from Sardinia in 1548; the plant had already been introduced to northern Europe by the Romans. There are several varieties of the herb. The curly leaved or moss-curled is the one most familiar in Britain as a garnish. The plain- or flat-leaved, continental parsley has heavily divided leaves, but they are not so curly; this is the plant which can be confused with another, Aethusa cynapium or fool’s parsley, which is poisonous. Less familiar is the Neapolitan parsley from southern Italy which has thick stalks, eaten in Italy like celery (and, in fact, its French name is ‘persil aux jeuilles de cileri’). All parsleys have carrot-shaped roots which can be eaten, but the Hamburg parsley (P. fusiformis) has been developed for its roots rather than its leaves. The common parsleys have dark green leaves, pale yellow-green flowers in umbels, followed by fruit seeds.

The name petroselinum comes from the Greek for rock celery, referring to the natural habitat of the plant. Interestingly, selinum is thought to be the same as selinon, the Greek name for celery; the Romans called parsley ‘apium’, also the botanical name for celery; and French fool’s parsley is called ache des chiens, ache also once a name for wild celery. Celery also belongs to the Umbelliferae family, and possibly there have been confusions over the years.

The Ancient Egyptians used parsley, as did the Greeks, who crowned victorious soldiers with wreaths of it. Hercules did this after killing the Nemean lion, and thereafter victors in the Nemean and Isthmian games would do the same. They believed that parsley had grown from the blood of a hero, Archemorus, and Homer tells of a victory won by charioteers whose horses had renewed vigour after eating parsley. Parsley grew on Circe’s lawn in the Odyssey.
Pliny said that no sauce or salad should be without parsley, as did Galen, and both Pliny and Dioscorides thought of it as a diuretic and emmenagogue. Apicius sang its praises too. The Byzantines used it as a diuretic and made a strong infusion to help kidney stones. Charlemagne ordered that it be cultivated in the imperial gardens as a vegetable, and it was eaten at every meal. It also found a place in monastic gardens at this time.

More recently, in the nineteenth century research was done on the emmenagogic properties of a constituent of the oil, apiol, by Professor Galligo, and doctors de Poggeschi and Marrotte. These were later confirmed by Dr Leclerc, proving to be truly efficaceous in treating cases of menstrual problems, particularly pain.


Description: The oil is extracted from the seeds, roots and leaves. The seeds contain more essential oil than the leaves and roots, but an extraction from the entire plant is the most esteemed. Parsley oil is colourless, or a very pale yellow and it smells more bitter than the fresh plant.

The principal constituents: a.-terpinene) pinene) and a crystalline substance, apiol, with glucoside apiin, myristicine, an oleoresin and palmitic acid.

Apiol was discovered by Jovet and Homelle in 1850) and in 1890, Mourgues wrote a paper about many of the other chemical and physiological constituents of parsley.
Dangers: The physiological action of the oleoresin in parsley has not yet been fully researched, but the indications are that it acts as a distinct stimulus on the nerve centres of the brain and spine. In large quantities this can produce the opposite effect to that desired, and can be dangerous. Symptoms can be sudden low blood pressure, giddiness, deafness and slowing of the pulse. Apiol and myristicine have been implicated in miscarriage.


In illness
Parsley is mostly used in aromatherapy as a carminative, tonic and diuretic. Although it was used by the ancients to salute and help men, I have found it most useful in helping women. Echoing the findings of researches in the nineteenth and our own centuries, I find the plant a marvellous remedy for women of all ages, not only as a tonic for the nervous system, but for all the female menstrual cycle problems ¬flatulence, water retention, pain, indigestion and all other symptoms around period time. It is the supreme remedy for all of us, and we should eat parsley every day, adding it to salads, sauces and stews although it is better raw than cooked.

Make a tisane of the leaves – a large handful boiled in a litre (1 3/4 pints) mineral water for 2 minutes, then infused for 10 minutes – and drink around the time of a period. This is good for rheumatism, too: drink several times daily for a few days until symptoms have disappeared. With a little honey added, this tisane can also relieve tonsillitis.
For dysmenorrhoea, make up an oil to massage into stomach and lower back: 30 ml (2 tbsp) soya oil, 5 drops parsley, 2 drops chamomile and 1 drop tarragon.

For cystitis, mix an oil containing 30 ml (2 tbsp) almond oil, 2 drops wheatgerm, and 15 drops parsley and massage on the tummy, sacrum area and top of the hands. Baths containing parsley oils are good too for PMT and cystitis, and a little fresh juice extracted from parsley leaves should be drunk by sufferers of the latter first thing in the morning.
Fresh parsley juice made from crushed leaves is famed for its ophthalmic value. For conjunctivitis, or tired, sore or irritated eyes, put a little juice into the affected eye(s), four times a day. It will also soothe hay fever eyes. The juice can also help reduce the pain and inflammation of wounds and stings, and speed their healing.

Eating parsley is said to incease the flow of breast milk, and to sweeten the breath after eating garlic.

In beauty
Parsley is very helpful for broken capillaries. Boil three sprigs of fresh parsley in 600 ml (1 pint) water for 2 minutes, then leave to steep for 5 minutes. Add a drop each of rose and calendula oils, and leave to cool. Drip on to a piece of gauze or cotton wool, apply to the face, and relax for a few minutes.
An oil containing parsley oil is helpful, too, strengthening and draining broken capillaries or bruises. Mix together 10 ml (2 tsp) soya oil, 5 ml (1 tsp) wheat germ and 1 drop each of parsley and chamomile. Massage very gently into the affected areas.
(See also psoriasis and varicose veins.)

In cookery
Parsley is the omnipresent garnish on many restaurant dishes, and all too often it is left at the side of the plate. It would probably do more good for us than the main ingredient of the meal, as 25 g (1 oz) parsley contains more iron, for instance, than 100 g (4 oz) liver. Parsley is a rich source of vitamins A, Band C; it also contains calcium, potassium and some copper. So, use and eat parsley in salads, sauces, stuffings, marinades, in herb butters, in vegetable dishes, court bouillons and stocks. It is an essential ingredient of a bouquet garni and the chopped fines herbes in an omelette. It helps digestion of meats, fish, eggs and vegetables.

Other uses
The roots of parsley were once candied, like those of fennel, to store for winter medicinal use. The leaves and stems can be used for a greenish-yellow dye. The oil from the seeds is used as a flavouring for a variety of products, from ice cream to seasonings.

A to Z of Plants