Plant 383

Apium species (Apiaceae)


The best-known species of Apium is the cultivated food crop celery (Apium graveolens var. dulce), with its edible, swollen fleshy leaf stalks. Another variety, var. rapaceum, is the swollen-rooted celeriac. The name Apiaceae is based on the genus Apium, the first genus to be described within the family, which was formerly and is sometimes still known as the Umbelliferae, because of its characteristic umbrella-like flowerhead.

Apium graveolens occurs in the Mediterranean region, especially near the sea in moist or marshy soil, and in Asia west of the Himalayas. Archaeobotanical studies show the existence of its leaves and inflorescences in tombs dating back to the ninth century BCE in Greece at Kastanus and in seventh-century BCE Samos. Celery garlands were so revered that they were used to crown winners at the Isthmian Games and the sacred Nemean Games.

The specific name ‘graveolens’ means strongly smelling and the fruits are used as a flavouring when mixed with salt. Oil extracted from the fruits is used in the perfumery industry. Apium graveolens has important medicinal applications and potential. A drink made by boiling leaves is said to be beneficial in relieving the discomfort caused by arthritis and rheumatism, lowering blood pressure and, in the Greek islands, as a remedy for kidney stones. Celery also has antioxidant properties. Recent research has shown that chemicals extracted from the fruits may be one of the ingredients effective in making a natural product for use as a mosquito repellent.

When Captain Cook’s Endeavour expedition landed at Teoneroa (now Poverty Bay), New Zealand, in 1769, the crew gathered large quantities of sea celery, Apium prostratum, on his orders. At the time this was one of the plants boiled up and consumed with the aim of preventing scurvy, but was probably not completely effective at this task. This species, native to Australia and New Zealand, was significant for the survival of early explorers and colonists in those countries and regularly eaten by the Maori people.

A critically endangered British plant, Apium repens, which occurs on Port Meadow, Oxford, and one other locality in the country, is a crop wild relative of celery. Following a taxonomic revision in 2010, this species was placed in the closely related genus Helosciadium, although its potential value as a genetic resource in celery breeding remains. Oxford Botanic Garden is involved in an ex situ conservation programme for the species, holding plants suitable for reintroduction.

Further reading

Herden T et al. 2019. Genetic diversity of Helosciadium repens (Jacq.) W.D.H.Koch (Apiaceae) in Germany, a crop wild relative of celery. Ecology and Evolution 10: 875-890.

McDonald AW and Lambrick CR 2006. Apium repens: creeping marshwort. Species recovery programme 1995-2005. English Nature Research Reports 706: 1-118.

Megaloudi F 2005. Wild and cultivated vegetables, herbs and spices in Greek antiquity (900 B.C. to 400 B.C.) Environmental Archaeology 10: 73-82.

Serena Marner