Eng. celery and Sp. apio
The plant known as celery in English and apio in Spanish is a member of the Apiaceae family of Eurasian origin and which grows abundantly in the Mediterranean region. Its botanical name is Apium graveolens, a single species with several varieties. Although it is typically used as a vegetable, celery seeds can be used as a spice and the leaves of the plant as an herb.
Celery did not become a vegetable for human consumption until the 16th century, when certain varieties started to be used as food, at least in the West, with most improvements in its cultivation happening at the end of the 18th century. Before that, wild celery had been used by ancient cultures, such as the Romans and the Egyptians, only for ornamentation, medicinal properties, and to a lesser extent as a condiment for flavoring dishes. Celery is rich in minerals and vitamins and essential oils that give it a characteristic aroma. Celery was considered to be an aphrodisiac by ancient Romans and Greeks. Some still think it is due to the fact that celery stimulates the pituitary gland, which releases sex hormones.
Nowadays there are three major varieties or cultivars of this species, in addition to wild celery (Sp. apio silvestre). The variety that most people are familiar with in North America is the Pascal or dulce variety, with the botanical names Apium graveolens var. graveolens or Apium graveolens var. dulce (‘Giant Pascal’). This variety was ‘discovered’ by Henri Pascal in Nimes, France, around 1884 and exported to the United States, where it became quite popular. It is used in salads, for instance, with the stalks being typically the only part that is eaten, especially in the United States. A common Spanish name for this variety is apio de pencas. (The uncommon word penca means ‘stalk’, among other things; the more common word for ‘stalk’ is tallo.)
The dominant variety of celery used in Europe, on the other hand, is the celeriac variety, also known as celery root or knob celery in English and apio nabo in Spanish. (By itself, the word nabo means ‘turnip’.) The botanical name of this variety is Apium graveolens variety rapaceum. (In New Latin, rapaceum means ‘turnip-like’, a word derived from Lat. rāpum ‘turnip, rape’.) The main parts of this variety used in cooking are its bulbous root and the leaves, which are used as an herb for seasoning. The stalks, however, which are much thinner than those of the Pascal variety, are typically discarded. This variety is especially common in northern Europe.
Figure 169: Celery: Pascal and celeriac varieties.[i]
The word celery [ˈsɛ.lə.ɹi] entered English in the 17th century. It is a loanword from French céleri, which itself is a borrowing from dialectal Italian selleri, the plural of sellero, a name derived from the Late Latin name selinon for this plant, which was a borrowing from Greek σέλινον (selinon), a word meaning primarily ‘parsley’. In modern standard Italian, the word for ‘celery’ is sedano, which is supposedly a corruption of Greek σέλινον (sélinon). In the Brescian dialect of Italian, the name is seleno, which is closer to the original Greek word.
The name for this plant in Spanish is apio [ˈa.pi̯o], which is obviously related to the genus name of this plant Apium. The name apio, as well as the New Latin genus name, comes from the name this plant had in Latin, namely ăpĭum (genitive: ăpĭī), a word that meant both ‘parsley’ (Sp. perejil) and ‘celery’, since these plants were at the time seen as very similar, if not equivalent. Sp. apio is obviously a loanword since the intervocalic Latin p has not changed to b. The first documentation of this word in Spanish is from the 15th century. The Latin word ăpĭum is derived from apis ‘bee’, for the Romans thought bees were attracted to these plants. The Spanish word for ‘bee’ is the patrimonial abeja, which descends from the diminutive of the word apis, namely apĭcŭla.
The second part of the celery species name is graveolens, a Latin word that meant ‘strong smelling’, in the sense of ‘foul smelling’ (Sp. maloliente), which might seem an odd choice for the name of this plant. The Latin word grăvĕŏlens is actually derived from the phrase grăvĕ ŏlens, where grăvĕ is an adverb meaning ‘strongly, rankly’ in this context (it is derived from the adjective grăvis ‘heavy, deep, etc.’) and ŏlens is an adjective meaning ‘smelling’ or, more specifically, the present participle of the verb ŏlĕre ‘to emit a smell’, source of Sp. oler, which means ‘to smell’ (both ‘emit a smell’ or ‘perceive a smell’, like in English).
Finally, a third variety that is common around the world is leaf celery, also known as cutting celery and Chinese celery (Apium graveolens var. secalinum). This cultivar is grown in East Asia, where it grows in marshlands. Only the leaves of this variety are used, which are used as an herb in China and in Europe, mostly to give flavor to soups and stews. Leaf celery is close to wild celery and thus it is similar to parsley. (Remember that the Romans called both parsley and wild celery by the same name.) Popular names for this variety in Spanish are apio de hoja and apio de corte, cf. Eng. leaf celery and cutting celery, respectively.
Just like the leaves of leaf celery (and in some cases those of other varieties as well) are used as an herb, celery seeds are sometimes used as a spice. The taste and aroma of the celery seed is similar to that of the plant, though much stronger and intense and quite bitter. These seeds have been described as having a ‘harsh, penetrating, spicy aroma and a warm bitter taste that leaves a burning sensation’.[ii] Celery seeds are used, for instance, in Cajun and creole cooking, along with mustard seed, bay leaf and thyme, giving their dishes a distinctive flavor. They are also used in Worcestershire sauce and pickling solutions. Celery seeds are very small and they are sold whole, slightly crushed, or ground (if not whole, they tend to lose their flavor quite fast).
 Spanish has a patrimonial descendant of Lat. rāpum, namely rabo. This word, however, has come to mean ‘tail’, as well as, in slang, ‘penis’. In some Spanish-speaking countries, rabo is slang for ‘buttocks’, however. The Spanish word nabo is a patrimonial descendant of Lat. nāpus, which meant ‘radish’.
[i] Sources: (left) “Céleri”. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:C%C3%A9leri.jpg#/media/File:C%C3%A9leri.jpg; (right) Celeriac in a vegetable garden in Belgium: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Celeriac_J1.jpg
[ii] Source: Handbook of Spices, Seasonings, and Flavorings, Second Edition By Susheela Raghavan, Boca Raton : CRC Press, 2007, p. 83.