Chervil (Anthriscus cerefolium) is an edible herb with finely divided green leaves. It’s popular in cooking for its delicate and subtle flavouring, sometimes described as a blend of parsley and aniseed. It’s used in a wide range of dishes, and is a key ingredient in the mixture of ‘fines herbes’ – chervil, parsley, tarragon, and chives – that’s a mainstay of French cooking. In the garden, chervil is easy to grow and doesn’t require any special growing conditions. Indeed, growing your own is often the only way to find a reliable source of chervil as it’s rarely available to buy as a fresh herb. As with most herbs, the flavour of fresh chervil is far superior to that of the dried leaves.
Chervil is sometimes called French parsley, and while there is some similarity in appearance and flavour to parsley (Petroselinum crispum), the two herbs are not related. Chervil is also not related to a root vegetable called chervil root or root chervil (Chaerophyllum bulbosum), which looks similar to a parsnip.
Chervil is native to the Middle East and Caucasus regions, although was likely to have been brought to Britain by the Romans and has been cultivated for many hundreds of years. Being hardy, this herb is useful to harvest and use fresh in winter when relatively few others are available.
How to grow chervil
Sow seed from spring to late summer in a cool partly shaded spot, directly where the plant is to grow. Thin seedlings and keep watered during dry spells. Harvest from when plants are a few weeks old. Discard plants that run to seed, removing faded flower heads to avoid self-seeding.
Where to sow chervil
Chervil needs partial shade and must be out of the midday sun in summer, as heat encourages plants to bolt (run to seed) and at that point the leaves are past harvesting. With an attractive appearance, chervil can be grown alongside ornamental plants in a border as well as in a vegetable garden. While it’s best grown in the ground, chervil can be grown in a large pot.
How to sow chervil seeds
Chervil quickly develops deep roots and can suffer when transplanted, so it’s best sown direct in good, fertile soil that is moisture-retentive yet free-draining. Sow seed from spring to late summer, 1cm deep, then thin the resulting seedlings so plants are spaced 15cm apart. Make several sowings through the year to ensure a continual supply of young leaves, with the final sowing in late summer to give a crop that will stand over winter.
You can grow chervil in traditional rows or mix the seed with seed of other herbs and leaves in a bowl to sow together as a ‘salad mix’. These mixed leaves will provide a variety of differently flavoured leaves in summer, for the perfect salad.
How to care for chervil
Chervil needs little care apart from watering during dry spells, which helps stop the plants from running to seed. Cut off flower stems as soon as they appear. In cold areas, protect chervil plants with cloches which helps ensure a regular supply of foliage through the winter. Towards the ends of the season, allow some flowers to appear and set seed – you can either save this seed to sow in spring or leave it to self-seed around the garden.
How to harvest chervil
Pick chervil leaves as and when you need to, when they’re fully unfurled, around six to eight weeks after sowing. Avoid harvesting leaves from chervil that has produced flower stems, as the leaves will have developed a bitter flavour.
To store chervil, fill ice cube trays with the chopped leaves, cover with a little water and put in the freezer. Once frozen solid, the cubes can be removed and bagged if the trays are needed. You can dry chervil leaves but they lose much of their flavour in the process.
Preparation and cooking ideas
The delicate flavour of chervil enhances a wide range of dishes where the main ingredient is not strong-tasting. Chervil is a classic partner for eggs, white fish, and chicken, as well as being suitable for soups, stews, and vegetable dishes. Use chervil to make herb butter and flavoured oil. Add the fresh herb towards the end of cooking, as the flavour is lost if cooked for too long.
If chervil is not available, a substitute for chervil would be fresh parsley or tarragon.
Pests and diseases
Slugs are attracted to chervil so protect with an environmentally friendly barrier or bait, especially in the early stages of growing when seedlings are vulnerable to attack.
Advice on buying chervil
- Seed gives the best results as pot-grown plants only have a limited shelf life because chervil has deep roots and doesn’t transplant well when older
- Buy chervil seed from a reputable source or check the sow-by date on packets as the viability of seed declines after around a year
- Buy fresh seed each year for reliable results