Alexanders (Smyrnium Olusatrum )
How to Identify Alexanders
Alexanders, horse parsley, alisanders and smyrnium.
Meaning of Botanical Name:
Smyrnuim indicates the plants distinct myrrh-like aromatics. While Olusatrum comes from Olus meaning garden herb and Atrum from the Latin ater, atrum, adjective atro, meaning black or dark (in this case a reference to the mature black seeds).
Kingdom: Plantae, Angiosperms, Eudicots, Asterids, Order:
Apiales, Family: Apiaceae, Genus: Smyrnium, Species: S. olusatrum
Known Hazards: Non Known
Could be confused with:
Hemlock waterdropwort (another member of the carrot family). This can be deadly poisonous. Among the many differences the key ones are that the leaves of hemlock waterdropwort are more finely lobed. Hemlock waterdropwort typically grows in damper locations than Alexanders, on river banks or above an underground water source. When in seed it’s easily distinguishable as Alexander seeds are jet black and hemlock water dropwort seeds are not. Hemlock water dropwort has clusters of yam-like tuberous roots whereas Alexanders has a single main tap root which is obviously jet black/dark brown.
Food Plant of….
Horses enjoy this plant as do cows, sheep and other grazing mammals. The Romans actually brought this plant to England with them to use as feed for their horses through the winter. Over 137 insects and bees have been recorded as being attracted to this plant, as it’s one of the earliest spring flowering plants. Watch out for the vibrant green but camouflaged caterpillars of the Angle Shades moth that can be hard to spot.
Range and Distribution:
Throughout the British Isles favouring the south and coastal areas, although it can be found inland, especially in places of former Roman occupation. Found throughout Southen Europe, Southern Asia, Northern Africa, and North America.
Grasslands, waysides, open woodland, coastal areas and scrub land, growing almost anywhere that there’s a disturbance of nutrient rich ground.
Alexanders is a stout biennial, typically growing from 1-2 metres. It has a solid and easily peeled green, green-yellow stem, becoming hollow with age. On top of the stem sits an umbelifer or flowering dome of yellow-petalled flowers, making it easier to distinguish from other plants in this family as their flowers are typically white.
The leaves are glossy, bluntly toothed with broad segments. The leaves have a distinctly purple veined sheath at their base, and grow in groups of three.
The highly aromatic seeds grow from 6-9mm long, are ridged and at maturity turn from green to jet black.
Folklore, tall tales, and not so folklore:
The name Alexander is a reference to Alexander The Great and to the city Alexandria that he founded in Egypt where a variety of these plants can be commonly found.
Root: Collected autumn, winter and spring (very pungent flavour). Excellent grated in coleslaw or tossed in salads, roasted like parsnips or deep fried as crisps, syrup, wine/beer.
Stem: Fresh young winter and spring leaf stems (including blanched underground white section) are excellent steamed, tossed in butter and seasoned with sea salt, freshly ground pepper and lemon juice. The flowering stem (before flowering) is excellent candied, pickled, in tempura batter, peeled and eaten raw, syrup, wine/beer.
Leaves: in salads, as a herb, as a vegetable, in soups, candied, syrup, wine/beer.
Immature flower clusters: Pickled, candied, raw in salads, syrup, wine/beer.
Mature Flowers: Tempura, cordial, syrup, wine/beer.
Seeds (full grown but green): Pickled, candied, syrup, wine/beer.
Seed (mature and black): Spice, seasoned flour, syrup, wine/beer.
Although this plant is rarely used within common herbalism, the juice was once used to clean out cuts and the whole plant, as a bitter, eaten to aid digestion.
This plant is often found around old religious buildings as the plant was highly revered as a religious herb.
Tips and Observations
Use a knife to cut away from young tender leaf stems, cutting below the surface of the soil, up to 3 inches, you’re looking for the white parts of the stem which is most tender.
Specifically noted the angle shades moth caterpillars which are almost the same colour as the foliage (if collected in March) so requires good washing to make sure it’s removed.
If you find the flavour too strong on trying this plant raw as an herb for the first time, cooking really moderates and loosens the pungency of flavour, making it more palatable.
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