Heirloom Celery Varieties
The Greeks, Romans and Germans have been infatuated with celery since ancient times — the Greeks associated celery with music, the Romans recognized it as an herb rather than a vegetable, and the Germans have a long tradition of using it in soups. Uncover more of celery’s rich history and learn how to sow, harvest and store your celery in unique ways.
To locate mail order companies that carry these heirloom celery varieties, use our Custom Seed and Plant Finder. Check out our collection of articles on growing and harvesting heirloom vegetables in Gardening With Heirloom Vegetables.
A Brief History of Heirloom Celery Varieties
Above: Red Celery retains its distinct flavor and firm texture even after cooking.
There are three forms of cultivated celery: stem celery (var. dulce), root celery or celeriac (var. rapaceum), and soup or leaf celery (var. secalinum). All three forms belong to the same species and therefore will cross if grown in proximity. Of these three, only the soup celery is known for certain to have been cultivated in ancient times, although there do appear to have been a number of different varieties. Just how much they resembled modern stem celery remains to be seen.
The ancient Greeks referred to celery as sélinon, and they differentiated several varieties, including one with crinkled leaves. It was not until about 1870, with the introduction of a French curly-leafed variety from Niort (Vendée), that gardeners could again, after so many centuries, enjoy the benefits of a crinkled ornamental celery. The Greeks used their crinkled-leaf variety as a culinary garnish much in the same way that we use parsley today. It was also used as a component in wreaths for festivals and funerals. In fact, celery enjoyed a cult status.
In 628 B.C. the Greeks established a city in Sicily called Selinunt (“celery city”) on the Selinus River, which may be considered the celery capital of the ancient world. Selinunt issued coins ornamented with celery leaves, but not simply for decorative appearance. Celery was used extensively in the cult practices connected with the god Linus (the mythical creator of melody and rhythm), and therefore celery was associated with music. Equally important (or because of its divine associations), celery was also a medical herb. This medical aspect was equally important to the Romans and was continued in herbals during the Middle Ages. In fact, celery was usually grouped with medical herbs rather than with vegetables.
The Romans considered celery as important to their cookery as dill and coriander, and few archaeological sites connected with Roman occupation lack specimens of celery seed. In general, the Romans used the leaf in combination with other green herbs to create pestos. The seeds were ground with asafetida seeds and other herbs to yield spice powders that were used as flavorings much like Indian curry powders. Today, celery seed is mostly harvested from soup celery, the one variety that we grow that most resembles the celery of antiquity.
Medieval herbals normally grouped celery with parsley and lovage, often treating them as variant forms of the same plant. Botanically speaking, all three are umbellifers and therefore part of the same family, but they are entirely different species and will not cross in spite of the similarity of their flowers — a misconception that is still widespread. In the seventeenth century, celery moved from an object of materia medica to a cultivated vegetable. As gardeners learned to propagate thicker-stemmed varieties, celery gradually replaced Alexanders in cookery. Both plants were blanched by “banking” or earthing up soil about the base of their stems to remove bitterness. However, blanching reduces nutritional value.
Cultivating celery in this manner successfully requires considerable hand labor and some skill. For this reason, stem celery was not a common garden vegetable in this country until the nineteenth century. Even then, it remained a specialty crop cultivated more by market gardeners and the wealthy than by ordinary folk. Where it was grown, the most common sorts were the white-stemmed varieties that did not require much earthing up to be palatable. Of course, soup celery (also known as smallage) was popular since it was easy to cultivate and overwinter.
Bernard M’Mahon listed five varieties of celery in 1806, including celeriac and the Red-Stalked Solid. This last variety is still available and is really quite an excellent vegetable, although vastly different from what we now are accustomed to. It is discussed below under red celery. Most celery varieties raised in this country during the early nineteenth century came from England, such as Seymours Superb White, a variety developed near Snaith in Yorkshire and introduced in 1839 (in the United States in 1842), and Bailey’s Red Giant, introduced in 1841. Seymour’s Superb White was one of the varieties recommended by Fearing Burr (1865, 317), but as the American Agriculturist (1868, 102) pointed out, imported seed could not be used for commercially grown celery because in our climate it produced hollow stalks.
With the revolution in market gardening that followed the Civil War, there was enormous pressure among American growers to develop celery varieties adapted to our climate. Between 1875 and 1900 the list of new varieties became huge, and many of these are still available today. The railroads enabled certain localities of the country to specialize in large-scale celery growing. Kalamazoo, Michigan, became one of the most important centers of celery growing. Close behind it in terms of output was Horseheads, New York. Both places had marshland soils in which celery thrived and the kind of cool weather that brings celery to perfection.
Tuisco Greiner, author of How to Make the Garden Pay, produced a small manual in 1893 called Celery for Profit, distributed by W. Atlee Burpee. Greiner was himself an upstate New York celery grower, and his book is full of interesting facts about varieties from that period. It is still a useful guide on celery cultivation today, especially for kitchen gardeners interested in raising heirloom sorts on a small scale.
Growing Celery from Seed
Celery seed is easy to grow; it is the next step that always proves tricky. James Seymour, son of the originator of Seymour’s Superb White, reported on the merits of nine varieties of celery in the Gardener’s Magazine (1841, 76–77). From his observations it is evident that all varieties cannot be treated the same, as true now as it was then. Yet there is one procedure that is consistent: celery seedlings should be planted about 1 foot apart, in trenches a good 12 inches deep. The trenches collect rainwater and make irrigating easier during dry spells. Celery is a marsh plant in the wild, and it has never lost its love of water. It is the high moisture content of the stalks that ensures the crispness we like in celery today.
As the plants grow, soil is filled in around them in order to blanch the stems. The downside to this—a common complaint years ago—was that the harvested celery was so full of dirt in the middle of the heads that it could not be cleaned unless pulled apart, not a good feature for market growers. It was this marketing problem that encouraged the development of self-blanching varieties. However, the trench method is fine for kitchen gardeners who are consuming their own produce, and it allows for some practical adaptations not available to large-scale growers. For example, the Gardener’s Magazine (1830, 554–55) recommended digging celery trenches between every other row of potatoes. This space-saving idea is excellent, and it consolidates the work of trenching and earthing up to one part of the garden. Furthermore, the two vegetables are compatible and can be raised in the same types of soil.
Rather than trenching, celery can also be blanched by laying two long planks along each side of the row so that only the leaf tops stick out, or plants can be individually wrapped in tubes of cardboard or heavy paper. The drawback to this is that because the stems are still exposed to the air, they are ready targets for aphids and must be checked vigilantly, since birds and other insect predators cannot get at them.
Harvesting CeleryKnowing when the celery is ready to harvest is a matter of personal experience and cannot be gained from books. Celery should never be planted so early in the spring that it begins to mature during the hottest part of the summer. This will only cause it to toughen, and if the summer heat is truly stressful to the plants, they may very well bolt and go to seed the first year. End of May, early June, this is probably the best time to plant the seedlings, but each area has its own microclimate that will dictate not only planting times but also harvest. Ideally, celery should be planted so that it comes to perfection in the fall. A light frost will not hurt it. Yet if it is left in the ground too long, the stems become pithy and stringy. A certain amount of trial and error is the only advice I can recommend, and for those who have never grown celery, I would certainly steer clear of the fancy, thick-stemmed sorts. Go with red celery and a little soup celery. They are hardy, easy to grow, and will provide clues about how to proceed with other, more finicky varieties.
Preserving and Storing Celery
Formerly, when celery was not available year-round (as it is now), celery had to be dug before frost, the roots trimmed, and all the green tops pruned off. The plants were then packed in dry sand and stored in a cool, dry place. J. W. Russell’s “Method of Preserving Celery through the Winter for Family Use,” which appeared in the Magazine of Horticulture (1840, 94–95), outlined this old method in considerable detail. It serves as a reliable guide for historical sites and offers a good way to store celery plants earmarked for seed. In the spring, the seed celery must be replanted in the ground and allowed to run to flower. In some areas where winters are mild, celery can be overwintered with a covering of straw, but moles may attack it while buried, and this can result in disastrous losses. I have problems with voles, which are even worse.
An alternate method is to dig up the plants and hold them over the winter in a cool greenhouse. I have tried this, and it works as long as the temperature is truly cool, by which I mean upper thirties and lower forties; otherwise the plants will bolt prematurely, and what is worse, if the temperature is too warm, the plants may develop celery leaf blight. This disease can spread to all other Umbelliferae in the greenhouse, including the toughest sorts of parsley. Since there is no organic means to deal with the leaf blight effectively, the results can ruin a year’s worth of hard work. The blight does not thrive in cool, shady conditions, so with care it can be avoided. If it should crop up in the garden, it can be deterred by moving the plants to a partially shaded location. Celery does not need full sun, particularly during the hottest part of the day.
Celery Seed SavingCelery for seed saving should be planted out after the threat of frost has passed. At least eight plants should be selected for this purpose, but I would recommend twice that if at all possible. Once the plants flower and turn yellow, check the seed heads. When they turn brown, they may be rubbed onto sheets of paper. Let the seed dry two weeks before storing it in jars. Celery seed should remain viable for eight years.
Heirloom Celery Varieties
There is a universal ring to nineteenth-century American comments about celery root, echoed by this remark from Meehan’s Monthly (1892, 28) about the small demand for seed: “This is probably from the fact that most of our vegetable tastes seem to be derived from England than from the continent of Europe, and the vegetable is not freely used in England any more than with us.” It was explained this way in Vick’s Illustrated Monthly Magazine (1880, 112): “Our German population make a great deal of this vegetable, and no doubt, those of us unacquainted with it have yet to learn that it has really valuable qualities. The favorite method of preparation is to cook the root in soup, slice it and eat it with salt, pepper and vinegar.”
In David Landreth & Son’s German-language seed list (1875, 72), only one variety of celeriac was listed, with the remark that the seed was imported. Seedsmen of that period kept quantities of celeriac seed in stock partly to bulk out their catalog lists, but also for another reason. The lack of seed sales was in this case no loss; if the seed failed to sell, it was sold in bulk to pickling houses. In fact, James Vick of Rochester usually quoted a wholesale and retail price for old seed earmarked specifically for this use.
Actually, celeriac is no more difficult to grow than turnips, but it does require two important things: well-worked soil and ample water. It is planted in rows 18 inches apart, with plants spaced 8 inches apart. The root, which is the part eaten, will form partly in the ground and partly projecting out of it. As the root enlarges, it is wise to earth up soil around it to blanch it and to keep it from drying out. Otherwise, it may develop a tough “hide” and become woody in the interior. The roots may be harvested at any size preferred, yet if allowed to grow too old in the ground, they will certainly toughen. Reserve only the best specimens for seed-saving purposes and overwinter them in sand in the same manner described for beets. Of course, crop off the tops about 1 inch from the base of the stems.
There are several heirloom varieties, most of them extremely large (often weighing 3 to 4 pounds each). Among these are Giant Prague and Early Erfurt. These are not to my mind well suited to small gardens and not as easy to grow as the Apple-Shaped Celery (céleri-rave pomme à petite feuille). This is a more dwarf version of Early Erfurt, with small leaves, purple stems, and a very round, smooth root about the size of an orange. The flavor is excellent, and there is less waste because the root may be pared easily. In spite of the French name by which it is most commonly known, this variety was commercialized by the German seed firm of Frederick Wilhelm Wendel of Erfurt.
The most wonderful celeriac of all, my undying favorite, is the little one with the big name: Tom Thumb Erfurt Turnip Rooted Celery. The German is worse. If the English name is cut out of this page, like a small fortune cookie saying, it can be wrapped around the little celery root — about the same size as a walnut — with some paper left over. This is not a dwarf celeriac, it is a bonsai celeriac. It is perfect in mixed vegetable dishes, just the right size for garnishing, and very quick to cook in a microwave. The Vilmorins dismissed it in their garden book, but cooking styles have greatly changed since the 1880s, and this is one heirloom that has a very up-to-date usefulness. Unfortunately, seed is so scarce that it may be some time before this vegetable is available in this country. The variety depicted in the old woodcut is the Apple-Shaped Celery. The tops can be used as soup celery and the pared skins dried for winter soup stocks in the same manner as kohlrabi skins. This is the variety that Pauline Schultz probably had in mind for the celery root salad recipe in her Deutsch-Amerikanisches Koch-Buch (1891, 166), translated below.
Introduced in 1886, this celery is characterized by robust growth and dense, stocky stems that recommend it as an excellent storing celery. As the celery matures, the stems change from pale green to yellowish white without the need to bank up soil or resort to other types of covering. It does particularly well on low, damp ground. I plant it in part of the garden that floods during summer rains. It comes to perfection about the middle of October.
This variety is characterized by yellow leaves and stalks, very yellow, almost lemon in color. It attains a height of roughly 2 feet, at which point the leaf extremities turn golden yellow. It will stand out in a field of celery for this one feature. The stems are naturally white, but they can be made even whiter and more tender by banking up with soil. Of all the old French varieties of this type, this is by far the most decorative, the easiest to grow, and the least bothered by aphids.
The plant grows 2 feet tall and has light green leaves on huge, 2-inch-thick stems with a nutty, somewhat butternut-like flavor. The woodcut at the bottom of page 133 shows a perfect specimen. In spite of the thickness of the stems, this celery is not stringy, but if it is not kept well watered, the stems will likely become hollow or dry, a drawback with all large-stemmed varieties. This celery should be raised as an early fall crop because it does not store well over the winter.
There are several red varieties available among seed savers. My favorite is the plain old sort from the eighteenth century. It is simply called Red Celery, because its originator is as unknown as the circumstances surrounding its development. Freshly harvested, its stems are wine red—deeper or lighter depending on the soil—and the leaves are dark green. The plant reaches a height of about 18 inches, but can be made to grow somewhat taller if banked up with soil. I earth it up only slightly so that the stems turn pink on the bottoms but remain red at the top.
The stems are not thick like commercial celeries of the supermarket, yet the flavor is intense—real food taste—and this particular variety holds its color when cooked. I like the look of this celery in salads, in mixtures of cooked vegetables, and alone as a poached vegetable entrée. It is also excellent in soups because it does not cook soft and the leaves can be used like Italian parsley. Red celery takes celery back to the point in its cultural development where it was still a vegetable with character rather than reduced, as it is today, to a pallid, watery garnish. The following recipe takes advantage of the robust taste of old-time celery. It comes from Mary Brotherton’s Vegetable Cookery (1833, 46), a vegetarian cookbook issued for the use of the Bible Christians, an English sect that established its headquarters in Philadelphia in 1816. This large and influential group, which would not consume vegetables fertilized with animal manures, not only contributed to the evolution of Philadelphia’s “particular customer,” but many of its members were instrumental in founding the American Vegetarian Society.
The wild celery of Europe grows in salt marshes in coastal areas and is weedier in habit than soup celery. It is also smaller, with a much darker leaf. However, the two will cross because they belong to the same species. Soup celery is best described as a wild celery brought under control and transformed into a dignified potherb through long cultivation. Its leaves resemble parsley, although the flavor is intense, akin to celery seed. There is also a definitive salty aftertaste.
The plant grows in clumps and may reach 2 feet in height. Six or eight plants are usually sufficient for a kitchen garden and will supply greens most of the year if raised in a cold frame. The more soup celery is cut, the better it thrives. The leaves are absolutely essential for soup stock, and historically, served as a key ingredient in soup bunches.
Henderson’s revenge came quietly in his Garden and Farm Topics (1884, 167), in which he explained that White Plume was a sport of Golden Half-Dwarf. Regardless of how it happened, the variety was quickly recognized as an important addition to the vegetable garden. It became the leading self-blanching variety among American gardeners, and a favorite of hotels and restaurants for its highly ornamental character.
Part of the charm of this celery lies in its dwarf habit, almost 12 inches in height, and the compact arrangement of the stems. The stems are white, and the yellowish leaves have a fine, ferny or feathery quality quite unlike common celery. The eating quality of the stem is very good, since it is crisp and snaps like an apple. But the celery does not store well, and therefore its crop value declines toward the end of December. In the nineteenth century it was one of the most popular celeries sold at Christmas.
Toward the end of the 1890s, pink varieties came into fashion, and a Pink Plume Celery eventually appeared on the market. It is now rare, but is probably one of the most ornamental of all the Victorian specialty types.
Find seeds for these heirlooms and more with our Custom Seed and Plant Finder.
Photos and illustrations courtesy William Woys Weaver.
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