Smyrnium olusatrum, common name Alexanders, is an edible cultivated flowering plant, belonging to the family Apiaceae (or Umbelliferae). It is also known as alisanders, horse parsley, and smyrnium. It was known to Theophrastus (9.1) and Pliny the Elder (N.H. 19.48).
These stout plants grow to 150 centimetres (59 in) high, with a solid stem which becomes hollow and grooved with age. The leaves are bluntly toothed, the segments ternately divided the segments flat, not fleshy. Alexanders are a wild plant in Britain and other parts of Europe and are commonly found among the sites of medieval monastery gardens.
Alexanders is native to the Mediterranean but is able to thrive farther north. The plant was introduced to the UK by the Romans, who called it the ‘pot herb of Alexandria.’ Every part of the plant is edible. The flowers are yellow-green in colour and arranged in umbels, and its fruits are black. It flowers from April to June. Alexanders is intermediate in flavor between celery and parsley. It was once used in many dishes, either blanched, or not, but it has now been replaced by celery. The black seeds have a taste that has been described as both spicy or peppery.
They were used in medieval cuisine in place of a bitter type of celery. One 17th century text describes young shoots used in salads or a “vernal pottage” and an early 18th century recipe recorded by Caleb Threlkeld for Irish Lenten Potage includes alexanders, watercress and nettles. Alexanders fell out of favour in the 18th century after celery started being mass produced to replace wild herbs and vegetables. Alexanders are not commonly used as a food product in the modern era, but have found some renewed use in exotic “foraged” food recipes and restaurants.
Look for this tall plant on cliff paths; the first seaside greenery of the year. Roman soldiers would carry the plant on long journeys, as they could eat the leaves, the stems, the roots, and the buds.
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