Some plants in the forest garden are just more easy to photograph than others. Aralia spinosa spreads its delicate leaflets in one easy-to-focus plane, while pot marigold works the camera shamelessly. Celery is at the other end of the spectrum. Its sprawling habit makes it hard to get into a single coherent photo, while the fact that it puts on most of its leaf growth in autumn, winter and early spring means that the photography conditions usually consist of low light and wet, difficult-to-focus leaves.
Those of us who don’t show up so well in photographs, however, can still have lots of other excellent qualities, and celery is an indispensable member of the forest garden cast. That growing season means that celery leaves are available when few others are and its flavour is a welcome addition to winter soups and stews. As with most carrot family plants, it’s the young, tender leaf shoots that are best rather than older leaves. In summer the young flower stems can also be used in dishes like stir fry and the seeds, produced in abundance, make a wonderful aromatic spice.
No matter how useful I find celery at present, I think I have only started to explore its potential as a forest garden plant. The celery I’m talking about is not the familiar shop-bought celery with its large, white, crunchy stems. That can be grown in Scotland, but only with lots of care, watering, feeding and mounding, and preferably a polytunnel. I’m talking about the smaller, leafier varieties variously called wild, herb, leaf, cutting or Chinese celery, which are used more as a leafy herb than as a stem vegetable.
Despite their differences, all these varieties are the same species, Apium graveolens. While the chunkier stem celery was clearly developed far south of Scotland, there’s no reason why a bit of selective breeding couldn’t favour the same qualities within a hardier gene pool, more adapted to a forest garden in the North. That’s what I’m working on in my garden, and celery is already responding.
The first step was to source a wide range of genetic sources. This involved navigating a bit of a minefield of names. True wild celery is Apium graveolens var. graveolens or ‘smallage’. It is a plant of wet, salty ground. Seed sold as wild celery is usually probably not true wild celery but one of the leafy cultivated celeries collectively labelled Apium graveolens var. secalinum, as opposed to the thick-stemmed var. dulce. One group of these are the Chinese celeries, also known as kintsai (which is just an old spelling of the Chinese word for celery, qíncài or 芹菜) or Nan Ling celery. Chinese celeries have generally undergone more selection than their Western counterparts. They tend to be more delicate and more colourful, and not quite so hardy. Western secalinum are called herb, leaf or cutting celery. There’s also a Dutch heirloom variety usually marketed as ‘Par-cel’ or occasionally ‘Zwolche Krul’. It’s a dead ringer for curly-leaved parsely – hence the name – and there’s a lot of confusion on the internet as to which it really is.
Having sown a range of these different kinds, I left them to it for a few years to mix up the gene pool. Celery is biennial so there is a new generation every couple of years. Now everything is well mixed, I’m starting to apply some selection pressures. There are a few qualities that I’m selecting for. Size and vigour are important of course. For stem qualities I’m looking for thickness and solidity. Some stems are hollow while others are fleshy all the way through. A few plants seem to have a degree of perenniality, surviving and growing again after flowering. Hardiness and general adaptation to my garden conditions are selected for by the environment.
You can see some of the variation here, in the range of leaf lengths, thicknesses, colours and solidity. No prizes for guessing which is my favourite one so far.
I haven’t tried selecting for a thickened hypocotl or stem base yet, but that would be the route to an equivalent of celeriac, the bulbous Apium graveolens var. rapaceum.
Although celery is ancestrally a marsh plant mine seem happy in all parts of the garden, including in a moderate amount of shade. In contrast to the traditional celery it needs next to no special care.