This week, I received word that George, the husband of a dear herbal friend passed away. George and Charlene had a lovely and full life, and learning of his passing brought back lots of memories. One was a day they visited the farm, and Charlene asked if I had “cutting celery” for sale because it was her new favorite herb. We were really busy that day, and I remember shaking my head, “No, I didn’t grow it, but I will for you.” Afterwards, I forgot about it, and then Charlene passed away unexpectedly. Belatedly, in her honor, I ordered cutting celery and planted it that spring. Imagine my surprise when it turned out to be smallage, which I have always grown, and could have given to Charlene the day she asked. Darn! I hate disappointing people, especially those as sweet as Charlene and George.
Smallage (Apium graveolens) or cutting celery will always have a place in my garden. It is so very useful in many ways. As the name implies, it has a celery flavor, but is much easier to grow in our soils than the “stalk celery” common in our groceries, which really needs sandier soils and to be hilled to blanch before harvest. Smallage is extremely popular in Europe, where its leaves are essential in soups, sauces, and salads. It is generally treated as a cut and come again crop, where the outer leaves are constantly harvested, or the entire plant can be cut a few inches from soil level, as long as the center growth point is not damaged. In early spring, the leaves and stalks are mild and tender, however, in the sweltering heat of our summers, the leaves get a bit tougher and stronger flavored, and the stalks get pretty stiff and difficult to chew. That’s when I harvest the leaves for drying, because that stronger flavor is a good thing and when they are tossed into winter soups they become tender again. It’s also when I harvest the hollow stalks to use as straws for Bloody Marys or other vegetable cocktails. Once the weather cools a bit, I cut the plant back, and the new growth is lush, flavorful, and tender again until we get a hard freeze. If I remember to give a few plants some protection, I often have fresh leaves to use until Christmas. The shape of the leaves will remind you of parsley.
Surprisingly, the celery seeds available in the grocery spice racks are nearly always the seeds of smallage rather than celery. Smallage is a prolific seed producer, and if your cole slaw recipe calls for celery seed, and you make it as often as my husband does, you need a LOT of celery seed, so I like to harvest my own. Smallage is a biennial. It grows from seed for one season, and if it winters over (which it often does here in Zone 5) it will reappear the next spring, producing lots of harvest before it sends up a seed stalk that is like all other umbelliferae, having umbrella-shaped flowers with small white blooms. Picture Queen Anne’s lace bloom, but daintier. When the seeds are fully brown, snip the seed heads off into a paper bag and allow to dry completely before shaking them from the stems into a jar or bottle with a tight-fitting lid or cork. I always gather some seed, just in case we have a very hard winter, or some critter digs up and devours the carrot-like roots. And, like chives, if you don’t harvest the seeds, you will have hundreds of baby smallage plants emerging when the weather warms.
In case you are wondering, cutting celery has the common name “smallage” to differentiate from lovage, which is a much larger, but similar celery-flavored herb. Smallage is usually about knee-high, while lovage usually reaches my shoulders. I grew smallage plants from seed again this year. The photo above shows them newly planted in the south interior border, where they will get a bit of shade throughout the summer, and will be within easy reach for continual harvests. If you’ve never grown smallage, or cutting celery, give it a place in your garden.