Parsley (Petroselinum crispum and P. sativum) is a member of the Apiaceae family of plants. Relatives of this common culinary herb include the garden vegetables carrot, parsnip, and celery. Parsley belongs to the same family as poison hemlock (Conium maculatum L.), a deadly narcotic herb. Parsley is native to the Mediterranean area but is now naturalized and cultivated throughout the world. Nicolas Culpeper, the seventeenth-century English herbalist and astrologer, placed parsley under the dominion of the planet Mercury. Common names for this herb include parsley breakstone, garden parsley, rock parsley, persely, and petersylinge. A variety known as Hamburg parsley (P. crispum, "Tuberosum"), first cultivated in Holland, has a root as much as six times as large as garden parsley.
In ancient times parsley was dedicated to Persephone, the wife of Hades and goddess of the underworld. Parsley is slow to germinate. Folk legend explains this characteristic with the myth that parsley must first visit Hades seven times before it may freely germinate and flourish on the earth. It was also believed that the herb would flourish only in gardens where a strong woman presides over the household. Parsley was used as a ceremonial herb in ancient Greek and Roman cultures. The herb was sprinkled on corpses to cover the stench, and planted on the graves of loved ones. Roman gladiators ate parsley before facing foes in the arena. Victorious Greek athletes were crowned with parsley. In the Middle Ages this lovely herb was known as merry parsley and was credited with lethal powers. It was believed that one could bring certain death to an adversary by pulling a parsley root from the earth while calling out the enemy's name.
Parsley is a self-seeding biennial that thrives in rich, moist soil in full sun or partial shade. It grows from a single spindle-shaped taproot producing smooth, many-branched and juicy stems. The bright green leaves are feather-like in appearance, tri-pinnate and finely divided. Some varieties are flat-leafed, others are more compact and curly. Diminutive five-petaled flowers are yellow-green and borne in dense, flat-topped clusters. They bloom in midsummer. The gray-brown seeds are tiny, ribbed and ovate (egg-shaped). Parsley can grow as much as 3 ft (1 m) tall in its second year as the flower-bearing stems become nearly leafless and reach for the sun.
Parsley's taproot, leaves, and seeds are used medicinally. The leaf is used extensively as a culinary herb and garnish. Parsley's volatile oil, particularly the oil from the seed, contains the chemicals apiole, also known as parsley camphor, and myristicin in varying quantities depending on the variety of parsley. These constituents are diuretic, and also act as uterine stimulants. The diuretic effect of parsley appears to be related to increased retention of potassium in the small intestine.
In folk tradition, parsley has been used to promote menstruation, facilitate childbirth, and increase female libido. Its emmenagogic properties can bring on delayed menstruation. Parsley juice also inhibits the secretion of histamine; it is useful in treating hives and relieving other allergy symptoms. A decoction of parsley root can help eliminate bloating and reduce weight by eliminating excess water gain. Parsley has also been used traditionally as a liver tonic and as a means of breaking up kidney stones. The German Commission E, an advisory panel on herbal medicines, has approved parsley for use in the prevention and treatment of kidney stones. The saponin content of parsley may help relieve coughs. Parsley root is laxative and its carminative action can relieve flatulence and colic. Parsley is rich in vitamins and minerals, including A and C, as well as calcium, thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, zinc, potassium, and iron. The boron and fluorine in parsley give strength to the bones. Parsley's high chlorophyll content makes this beneficial herb a natural as a tasty breath freshener.
More recently, the natural deodorizing activity of parsley has been put to use by the food industry. More particularly, parsley can be added to processed foods containing onions or garlic in order to minimize the odors associated with these vegetables.
The freshly gathered leaves of parsley have been used as a poultice to relieve breast tenderness in lactating women. Parsley poultices may also soothe tired, irritated eyes, and speed the healing of bruises. The juice will relieve the itch and sting of insect bites, and serves well as a mosquito repellent. A juice-soaked gauze pad can be applied
The root and seed of parsley should be harvested in the fall from plants in the second year of growth. The leaves can be harvested throughout the growing season. It is important not to confuse wild parsley with the herb Aethusa cynapium, also known as "fool's parsley." It would be a toxic mistake.
After harvesting, remove parsley leaves from the stems and place them in a single layer on a drying tray out of direct sunlight in an airy room. When the herb is thoroughly dry, store it in tightly sealed, clearly labeled dark glass containers.
Decoction: Many of parsley's medicinal properties are concentrated in the root and are best extracted by decoction. Add about 1 tsp of thinly-sliced fresh or dried parsley root to 8 oz of cold water in a glass or ceramic pot. Bring to a boil; reduce heat and simmer for about ten minutes and infuse for an additional ten minutes. Drink up to three cups daily.
Infusion: Place 2 oz of fresh parsley leaves or root in a warmed glass container. Bring 2.5 cups of fresh nonchlorinated water to the boiling point and add it to the herbs. Cover and infuse the tea for about ten minutes, then strain. Drink the herb after the infusion cools. The prepared tea can be kept for about two days in the refrigerator. Parsley tea may be enjoyed by the cupful up to three times a day.
Tincture: Combine 4 oz of finely-cut fresh or powdered dry herb with 1 pt of brandy, gin, or vodka in a glass container. There should be enough alcohol to cover the plant parts and have a 50/50 ratio of alcohol to water. Place the mixture away from light for about two weeks, shaking several times each day. Strain and store in a tightly capped dark glass bottle. A standard dose is 1/2–1 tsp of the tincture up to three times a day
Juice: Large amounts of organic fresh parsley are needed for juicing. An electric home juicer or food processor may be used. Squeeze any pulp through a sieve to extract all the juice. Prepare parsley juice fresh as needed, and store in clearly labeled glass containers. Keep refrigerated.
A chemical found in the oil-rich seeds of parsley has abortifacient properties. For this reason, women should
not use parsley during pregnancy or lactation. Parsley irritates the epithelial tissues of the kidney, increasing blood flow and filtration rate; therefore persons with kidney disease should not take this herb internally without consultation with a qualified herbalist or physician. According to the PDR for Herbal Medicine, the daily dose of parsley in medicinal preparations is 2.1 oz (6 g). Parsley's volatile oil is toxic in high doses, and overdose can lead to poisonings.
Parsley contains furocoumarins—compounds that can cause photosensitivity in fair-skinned persons exposed to sunlight after "intensive skin contact" with the freshly harvested herb. Parsley may also cause allergy in sensitive persons.
No interactions have been reported between parsley and standard allopathic medications.
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United States Department of Agriculture. Washington, DC 20250. <www.usda.gov>.
Rebecca J. Frey, PhD