Celery is a marshland plant that has been cultivated as a vegetable since antiquity. It occurs around the globe, but is believed to have begun in the Mediterranean region in natural habitats that are salty and wet. Celery is rare north of the Alps.
There is ample evidence of celery from antiquity. Garlands found in tomb of the Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamun (died 23 BC) indicated the presence of celery. In Homer’s Iliad, horses graze on wild celery that grows in marshes near Troy and in his Odyssey meadows of violets and wild celery surround the cave of Calypso. Although known to be edible, celery may have been valued more for medicinal than food purposes in antiquity. Etymology can trace the plant’s path as it is discovered and adopted by successive European cultures. The English word celery is derived from the French celeri, which in turn comes from the Italian term seleri, which is derived from the Latin selinon, which is borrowed from the Greeks.
Celery receives only minor notice in the gardens of colonial America; in the colonial Treatise on Gardening by a Citizen of Virginia, celery is called “a new species of parsley,” a plant to which it is indeed biologically related. But by the mid 19th century, new selections of the vegetable brought a more refined, crisp texture and taste, and it was served raw in celery vases accompanied by salt. It became so popular in the United States in the 1800s and early 1900s that the New York Public Library’s Historical Menus Archives lists it as the third most popular dish on New York City menus during that period, preceded only by coffee and tea. It cost more than caviar then, possibly because it was notoriously difficult to grow.