When I was younger, we believed that if we had garlicky breath, the best way to get rid of it was to chew fresh parsley. As I was a big fan of garlic bread and a big hater of halitosis, I could regularly be found with a mouthful of this curly-leaved green herb. Eating it raw like this wasn’t very pleasant as it tasted not much better than the sawdust at the bottom of a bird cage, but I was prepared to martyr myself in the pursuit of non-stinky-post-garlic-bread breath.
Parsley contains a high amount of chlorophyll, which is believed to have anti-bacterial properties and it is this which was supposed to fight the strong smell. To this day, I don’t know if it actually worked, and as I grew older, I stopped the practice, preferring instead to avoid eating garlic if I knew I would be in close contact with other humans the next day. Of course at the moment, we can eat as much of the stuff as we like as social distancing and the wearing of masks protects the wider public from having to suffer the effects of garlic over-indulgence.
As my dad mentions in his column from 9th May 1981, parsley is connected with one of the longest lists of old superstitions of any plant. The little green herb was considered by some to be in league with the Devil because it took so long to emerge from the ground. The belief was that its roots extended down to the very pits of Hell and would go there and back nine times before sprouting. The only way to protect yourself was to make sure God was on your side. Therefore, if you wanted a healthy crop that would not afflict you with the Devil’s curse, then the best time to plant it was at 3pm on Good Friday which, for Christians, is the time of Jesus’ crucifixion. In some places, they didn’t dare touch the seeds to sow them, but would blow them from the top of a bible, while others would pour boiling water on them to expunge any devilish associations (I wonder if that might have been the real reason it took so long to grow?).
There were also a number of beliefs around family and motherhood, some of which are in conflict with one other. For example, if a woman wanted to become pregnant, she was told she had to plant some parsley, but other instructions suggest it was the head of the household who had to do the planting, which back in the day was always the man. However, if parsley grows well in a garden, that is an indication that the woman of the household is the master of it. Contrary to the idea that planting parsley would result in babies, some believed that chewing the herb was a natural contraceptive, or would help end an unwanted pregnancy (Is it just me, or is all this rather confusing?).
It was also considered very unlucky if anyone tried to move a parsley plant, for that would result in someone from your household becoming ill or even dying. It was also unlucky to give or receive the plant for the same reason. However, stealing the plant had the opposite effect, in that it would bring you good luck.
Parsley is one of the most nutritious herbs there is with a reputation for being powerful at fighting disease. It has long been used in herbal medicine, containing high levels of Vitamin K, which is essential for bone health, Vitamin A, which is essential for eye health, and Vitamin C, which is essential for the health of your immune system. As if that wasn’t enough, it is also recommended to take parsley for kidney complaints, sore eyes, water stoppage, headaches, heart problems, high blood pressure, allergies, inflammatory diseases and to improve your complexion.
It’s hard to believe that all those benefits are contained in this seemingly innocuous little plant, and it certainly has made me think that I ought to incorporate it into my everyday cooking more than I do at the moment. I have noticed, though, that in the supermarket today, most parsley available is the Italian flat-leafed variety, rather than the curly version that I unwillingly chewed on so many occasions. Why is this, and do they both have the same benefits, I wonder?
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This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 14th and the Gazette & Herald on 12th May 2021