While mitsuba is not a new culinary herb, it is a discovery for most North Americans. Mitsuba (Cryptotaenia japonica) is a classic seasoning that is as popular in Asian cuisine as Italian and curly parsley are in Western dishes.
It's also known as Japanese parsley or white chervil, possibly due to its subtle flavor, a blend of Italian parsley and celery leaves, but it is not closely related to either one. Mitsuba's look and aroma are distinctive, and for the herb aficionado or aesthetically motivated cook, it is a great addition to the gourmet garden.
In Japan, mitsuba is added fresh or cooked to soups, salads, sukiyaki, sashimi, tempura batter, custards, rice, and vinegared foods. Enjoy cooking with all parts of this plant--its leaves, stems, seeds, and roots are edible. Fresh leaves and stalks can be added to a mixed green salad, parboiled and served as a vegetable, or stir-fried alone or with other vegetables or meat. Because mitsuba turns bitter when cooked for more than a few minutes, cook it lightly, or add it to cooked dishes just before serving. Japanese chefs often use a trio of leaves atop supple stems as an elegant garnish.
The Japanese are not alone in appreciating mitsuba's culinary virtues. Native Americans gathered the botanically related wild honewort (C. canadensis) , a woodland perennial native that grows from Manitoba to New Brunswick and south to Georgia. They used it as a seasoning herb and vegetable.
Though mitsuba is often grown as an annual, it is classified as a hardy perennial, suited to USDA Hardiness Zones 4 through 9. It is one of the few culinary herbs to flourish in shade and part shade. It succeeds when planted between taller, sun-loving herbs whose foliage can provide shade.
Mitsuba is attractive in the garden; its light green leaves darken as they grow larger and mature. The tiny, star-shaped flowers are unobtrusive and quickly turn to seed. In its native woodland habitat, it can grow to 3 feet, but in the herb garden, 1 to 2 feet tall is more likely. Height is determined by environmental conditions such as type of soil, climate, and whether it is grown in partial shade or full sun.
Plant mitsuba with other herbs of similar culture such as sweet cicely, chervil, bee balm, lamium, lungwort, violets, and woodland strawberries.
Plant mitsuba in moist, rich soil mixed with well-rotted compost. Sow seeds about 1/4 inch deep, in late spring and again in late summer or early autumn. Keep soil moist. In cold climates, start seed indoors and transplant in late spring. In frost-free climates, sow outdoors from fall through late spring, but avoid planting in the hot summer months. For a continuous supply of tender young leaves, sow in succession every six weeks. When plants are 3 inches tall, thin to about 6 to 9 inches apart. (The thinnings are delicious in salads.) Feed plants regularly with liquid fish emulsion diluted to half-strength.
Plants are ready for harvest about 50 days after sowing. Harvest by cutting the stems at ground level when they are about 5 inches tall. If you are growing mitsuba as a perennial, cut the stems for culinary use when they are 8 to 10 inches tall. For next year's crop, allow several plants to go to seed, or propagate by root division.
Carole Saville is a food and garden writer based in Albany, California.