Popular in European gardens and cooking, chervil is an herb with a pleasant, subtle flavor. A member of the parsley family, it resembles parsley in appearance, but its leaves are paler in color and more finely dissected. A basket of chervil seeds was found in the tomb of King Tutankhamen (ca. 1370–1352 BCE), hinting at the importance of this herb in ancient Egypt, although little has been written about its use during this period. In the 1st century, Pliny the Elder wrote about the use of chervil to season food and suggested that it could be used to cure hiccups.
Common Names: Chervil, Garden Chervil
Description: Branched stems up to 2 feet tall with delicate, light green, deeply cut leaflets; small white flowers in compound umbels
Flowering: May through July
Parts Used: Leaves
Range/Habitat: Native to Europe and Asia, naturalized in North America
Chervil’s mild, aniselike flavor is best when the herb is eaten fresh. The flavor does not hold up to prolonged heat, so add chervil to foods just before serving, or use it finely chopped or as a garnish. Chervil enhances the flavor of carrots, cheese, corn, cream, fish, peas, sorrel, and spinach. Bearnaise sauce and classic French vinaigrette benefit from a bit of chervil, too. Together with parsley, tarragon, and thyme, chervil is one of the ingredients in the popular French herb mix fines herbes.
Chervil’s active compounds include coumarin, a volatile oil, and flavonoids. Coumarin is used as the basis for anticoagulant drugs such as Coumadin. The 17th-century English physician Nicholas Culpeper (1616–1654) wrote that eating chervil would “moderately warm the stomach, and is a certain remedy to dissolve congealed or clotted blood in the body” from bruises and falls. Modern herbalists suggest taking chervil leaf tea to aid digestion and for its diuretic effects. The tea can also be applied externally (with a cotton ball) to treat superficial wounds and skin irritations such as eczema. Nutritionally, the herb is a good source of the minerals magnesium, potassium, and selenium.
How to grow it
Chervil thrives in rich, light soil that retains moisture. The plant will bolt in high temperatures or intense sunlight, so a site in partial shade is best. For a steady supply of leaves, sow seeds every 2 to 3 weeks from early spring to fall. (Seeds sown in fall will germinate the following spring.) Thin seedlings to 8 inches apart. Cut the leaves in 6 to 8 weeks, before the plant flowers. Chervil is also easy to grow in a pot on a cool, sunny windowsill indoors.