Celery, the mild-mannered straight man of the vegetable world, packs a puny six calories per stalk and — in my opinion — about as much flavor as a desk lamp. Yet despite its limitations, the fibrous plant has featured in Mediterranean and East Asian civilizations for thousands of years.
The paradox puzzled me enough that I called a bunch of specialists at the intersection of botany and anthropology to pick their brains. They shared their best guesses about how celery sneaked into our diets.
"Celery is odd, right?" says botanist Charles Davis of Harvard University. "Another thing that's always baffled me about umbellifers [the family to which celery belongs] is that most species are wickedly poisonous." Socrates famously died by consuming water hemlock, a member of that family.
Wild celery is native to the Mediterranean area, according to Davis, though archaeological remains from Switzerland have suggested that humans were transporting celery seeds as early as 4,000 B.C. Another variety of celery called "smallage" was present in China as early as the 5th century. Strong aroma may have boosted the appeal of the varieties in the Mediterranean and Asia.
But celery enthusiasts of yore were probably not munching it for taste, according to Carlos Quiros, a plant geneticist emeritus from the University of California, Davis. He says that people in Egypt, Rome and China used the wild plant medicinally for a slew of ailments, but "usually for hangovers or as aphrodisiacs." (Lonely hearts beware: There's no medical proof that celery helps with either.) The Greeks and Romans favored wild celery's leaves to weave victory crowns for athletes, Quiros says, as did the Egyptians. In fact, archaeologists discovered a celery wreath in Tutankhamun's tomb.