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The Garden Gate: Put celery on your shopping list for the health of it

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By Ellen Probert Williamson

Celery is mentioned a number of times in the Talmud, the 39 books of Biblical commentary dating from the first century, as a remedy for infections and tumors and a cure for gout.

We think of celery as an ingredient in soups, salads and snacks. We are amazed to find that it is mentioned repeatedly in the Bible as a remedy for some serious health problems. It has held an important place in medical uses since about 500 B.C., when it was part of the pharmacopeia of ancient Egypt.

Celery is an essential ingredient in cooking. Many cookbook recipes list it in the making of soups, salads and casseroles. Early last century, there was a great fashion for serving celery sticks at the beginning of a meal — and there were even special serving dishes made for them that were included in sets of dishes.

For a long time, there was the idea that celery was an aphrodisiac, and eating celery was essential to good health.

Wild celery grows in salty soils along the coastline in many parts of the world. Many countries cultivate it, and the leaves, stems and flowers are used in cooking.

Celery contains an essential oil used in medicines. Rich in vitamins B and C, it is used as a general invigorator and to supply a feeling of vitality and well being. Celery juice has, for hundreds of years, been recommended for people suffering from depression and exhaustion. It’s also used as a tonic and refresher.

Celery is a member of the large parsley family. The name comes from the ancient Greek word “petroselinum,” which translates as “celery growing among the rocks.” It often grows in exactly that manner. Many botanists believe Sardinia is its original birthplace, but it is still found growing wild in all of the Mediterranean area. The ancient world widely used it in many ways, only a few of which were culinary.

The ancient Egyptians sprinkled parsley leaves on the graves of their dead, because it was associated with the thought of safe passage to the afterworld.

This association with the dead continued throughout ancient Greek and Roman times, when bodies of loved ones were strewn with parsley and celery. In fact, an old English proverbial expression, “to be in need of parsley,” meant one was at death’s door.

The herb gardens of many monasteries and castles in the Middle Ages were carefully tended. Many herbs were used in foods, but others were to be found in medicinal lotions and potions.

A good many were connected with superstition and magic in their supposed effects. It was thought that anise prevented facial wrinkles, but basil attracted scorpions. And people were convinced that thyme and celery would not grow unless they were blown upon by a wind from the sea.

Celery and celery seed have long occupied a big place in so-called folk medicine. It’s true that celery seed contains a diuretic substance, and it’s used to drain away pounds of excess water, reduce high-blood pressure and to treat congestive heart failure.

Celery-seed tea is available for purchase at many health-food stores. Celery seeds themselves, however, are available right off the spice rack in the grocery store. Or you can collect them after your garden celery flowers.

Celery contains calcium blockers and other plant chemicals used to help prevent and treat arrhythmias. It’s high in apigenin, a chemical that dilates the blood vessels. It’s also used to help lower blood pressure and cholesterol.

Some researchers at the University of Chicago Medical Center have discovered that small amounts of a compound in celery can lower blood pressure in animals. An equivalent dose for humans would be found in about four sticks of celery.

Celery has been an essential ingredient in cooking for many hundreds of years. Celery juice is delicious mixed with tomato, carrot or lemon juice.

Don’t forget to put it at the top of your next grocery-shopping list. You won’t be sorry you did.

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Ellen Probert Williamson lives in Kingston. Her column appears regularly in the Roane County News.