Image of Celery Fields in Armstrong by C.W. Holliday [PDP03645] courtesy of the Royal BC Museum and Archives
In the first part of the twentieth century, the small town of Armstrong in the North Okanagan Valley of British Columbia was known as “Celery City” The celery plant that gave Armstrong this name (Apium graveolens var. dulce ) probably originated in ancient Greece. It was originally eaten for its seeds and used to treat colds, flues, arthritis, indigestion and illnesses of the liver and spleen. Celery has one of the highest sodium contents of all vegetables and according to BC Agriculture in the Classroom is “a great way to balance your electrolytes after exercise and illness”. It’s also a known allergen that can cause anaphylactic shock comparable to peanuts and is as common an allergy in Eastern Europe as peanut allergies are in North America. As a vegetable it’s a rich source of fibre and vitamins K, A, B6, B1 and B2. Eating it does not give “negative” calories – according to Agriculture in the Classroom, chewing a stalk of celery takes five calories, and it would take an hour (of chewing, presumably) to burn off 6 calories.
Celery stalks were often found to be too tough and strongly-flavoured until Italian market gardeners in the 17th Century discovered the secret of “blanching”, or piling earth up around the base of the plants so that photosynthesis stopped and the resulting pale stalks had a milder flavor.
Celery likes to grow in mucky bottom land and Armstrong, BC has everything that celery needs – cool, moist fertile ground, bright warm days and cool nights. Celery was grown experimentally around Armstrong beginning in 1903 in a swampy area (Heal, 1952). It has to be individually planted and hand-weeded. In Armstrong, Chinese market gardeners quickly took on the monumental task of celery production, starting in about 1906 (Kristensen, 1985). They developed a celery stamper that enabled twelve seedlings to be planted at once and they harvested the crop by hand. The following photograph provided by the Armstrong Spallumcheen Museum and Arts Society shows three men with a stamper.
Up to 900 Chinese people came to Armstrong to work in the celery fields and in other market gardens, but the head tax, the Exclusion Act of 1923 and economic conditions during the Great Depression caused many hardships and finally an end to the celery industry in Armstrong by the 1940s. Today celery is grown in small amounts in Cawston, McBride, Prince George and to a small extent in Armstrong.
Armstrong may not be “Celery City” any more, but the delightful painting at the beginning of this blog by Charles W. Holliday , a well-known BC painter, has immortalized its celery fields.
Heal,R. (1952). Farms and enterprises in the North Okanagan. The Okanagan Historical Society 16th Report, 121-127.
Kristensen, N.O. (1985). Armstrong, the Celery City. The Okanagan Historical Society 29th Report, 115-119.