It looks like flat-leaf parsley, has a clean “green” flavor like parsley, belongs to the same family (Apiaceae) as parsley and is sometimes called wild Japanese parsley, but mitsuba (Cryptotaenia japonica) is a distinct herb that’s often used in Japanese and Chinese cooking.
Mitsuba means “three leaves” in Japanese and refers to the way the leaves grow on tall, skinny stems — very similar to my Giant of Italy parsley. The trefoil leaves are large and tender, with a subtle flavor that I can only describe as a cross of parsley, celery, and maybe a hint of cilantro.
Intrigued? So was I when I first learned about it, so I seeded a few plants a few years ago and found the herb to be a light, refreshing garnish for non-Asian dishes as well.
Mitsuba is usually added to soups, salads, and stir-fries, and often raw since heat tends to bring out its bitterness (or degrade the flavor altogether). I chop up the leaves and stems to use fresh, but the roots and seeds of mitsuba are also edible.
The plant is a hardy perennial in mild climates and grows as a cut-and-come-again herb. I never let my mitsuba flower, but it reseeds easily if treated as an annual crop. To harvest, I wait for the stems to grow 6 to 8 inches tall, then give them a haircut straight across at soil level. This encourages more stems to grow, rather than just picking off the leaves. (Don’t toss the stems either; they’re soft and succulent, and not at all stringy like parsley sometimes is.)
Mitsuba grows wild in Japan (hence it’s often called wild Japanese parsley) and in its native woodland habitat, the herb can grow up to 3 feet tall. In most gardens, however, it reaches 1 to 2 feet in height. In my own garden, I grow mitsuba in a large pot and it stays bushy and compact, no more than 10 inches high and 10 inches wide (which is more than enough for harvesting — a little goes a long way with this herb).
Since the leaves stay lush and green year-round, mitsuba makes an attractive container plant. New growth is light green, turning darker as the leaves mature. It likes moist, shady conditions; too much sun can actually cause the leaves to yellow. It grows best in full to partial shade, or in the shadow of taller plants and trees. If you’ve ever lamented the fact that your yard or your windowsill lacks enough light, this is your plant!