Alexanders are an ancient food source, cultivated for many centuries and widely grown by the Romans, who introduced it into western and central Europe including the British Isles. It was an important vegetable used in many dishes in much the same ways as celery or lovage, it was often used blanched to accompany winter salads.
Alexanders were grown by nuns prior to the 1539 Act of Dissolution and is still commonly found among the sites of medieval monastery gardens, it fell out of favour in the 19th century after the development of modern forms of celery. It was used in herbal medicine and extensively grown for its edible leaves, stems roots and seeds, but by the nineteenth century it was almost completely forgotten.
Alexanders is salt tolerant and thrives near to the coast. It can be grown inland, and even still survives in the wild in some places it was once grown. Nowadays cultivation of this ancient old plant has been relegated to a few family gardens.
This biennial wild flower, with dark green, shiny leaves and umbels of yellow-green flowers can be grown as an ornamental or can be put to use as a culinary herb or spice, the flavour is said to be similar to myrrh.
Seeds require a period of moist, cold conditions before they will germinate.
They are easiest grown when sown directly outdoors in a seedbed in autumn and transplanted into its permanent position in late spring.
At other times of year, seeds can be sow seeds into pots or trays and stratified by placing in a cool place for four to twelve weeks and then brought into the warmth for germination. Patience is required as germination can be slow.
Easy to grow, transplant out into garden in spring or in autumn, into a sunny position with well drained, moisture retentive soil.
The following year, feed and water the seedlings frequently. Use an organic fertiliser especially if the plant is to be eaten. In mid season, prune the stems to keep the plants about 60cm (24in) tall.
In autumn, cover them with tall baskets to blanch the leaves and stems to make them sweet and tender. Hardy to about minus 15°C. (5°F). Mulch seedlings in areas with harsh winters.
Leafy seedlings can be used as a parsley substitute. Use leaves as a pot herb, in much the same ways as celery or lovage, as flavouring for soups, stews and sauces accompanying meat and fish. They impart a pleasant flavour similar to celery, although somewhat sharper.
Flower buds can be used raw, steamed or pickled, they can be added to salads and go well with fish or with a strong, hard cheese,
Use the roots as parsnip substitute or they can be preserved in a sweet-and-sour pickle. The root is said to be more tender if it has been kept in a cool place all winter
Seeds can be used to add flavour to stocks, stews, soups and to flavour rice. They contains an essential oil, cuminal, which is reminiscent of cumin and myrrh.
Although rarely used in herbal medicine now, the plant was used to benefit digestion. The Greek botanist Theophrastus (fourth century BC) made reference to the plant. Dioscorides (first century) also included it in his Materia medica, commenting that its roots and leaves were edible and its seed, taken with wine, is an emmenagogue.
Parkinson, in 1640 refers to it as ‘The herb of Macedonia of Alexander the Great’ and advises: “Eaten at Lent to digest crudities & viscous humours gathered in the stomache.”
Culpeper makes reference to its properties. “Seed, powdered for flatulence, snakebite, warming a cold stomach.”
Alexanders is native to the Mediterranean, west and southern Europe. In former times it was very abundant in the area around Alexandria and Macedonian. It grows in uncultivated land near the sea and salt-marshes and is also found in hedges, woods and on waysides.
Wild populations grow abundantly in many parts of Europe, including Britain and Northern Ireland. North Africa (Algeria) and in the Near East and is naturalised on the Iberian Peninsula.
Alexanders can be found growing wild but because of its similarity to a number of other plants, some of which, like hemlock can be extremely poisonous it is best left alone. 'Fortune favours the brave' is a lovely saying, but it's not something to be applied to foraging.
The plant, and especially the leaves have a smell and flavour similar to myrrh. Hence the origin of the word smyrnion, its generic name
The species name olusatrum comes from olus, meaning 'pot herb' (cooking vegetable) and atrum meaning ‘black’ in reference to the black seeds. It is also commonly called Black Lovage.
The common name Alexanders means ‘of Alexandria’ reference to its geographical origin in Alexandria, North Africa although some references speculate that it may have been named after Alexander the Great.
Called Hipposelinon by the Greeks, a word which means ‘parsley’ or ‘horse celery’, it was used to differentiate it from cultivated celery (Apium graveolens),
Local names include: Alexander parsley, Macedonia parsley. Alick, Ailsanders, Skit, Skeet, Ashinder, Megweed, Meliroot and Wild Celery.
It was formerly known as Petroselinium alexandriurn. Syn: Smyrnium Maceron
Alexanders are an ancient food source that goes back to Roman Times. It is now almost forgotten as a foodstuff,
The history of its cultivation is surprising. Of all the Umbelliferae used as vegetables, Alexanders has been one of the commonest in gardens for many centuries. It was probably being gathered before the Neolithic period and was already being grown as early as the Iron Age. It became very popular during the time of Alexander the Great (fourth century BC) and was widely grown by the Romans, who certainly introduced it into western and central Europe, including the British Isles.
In France, it was an important vegetable, and was grown on the estates of the Carolingian kings. In Versailles, it was used blanched to accompany winter salads. There is documentation on its cultivation in Italy and Belgium in the fifteenth century and on its abundance in English gardens in the sixteenth century.
Alexanders was used in many dishes in much the same ways as celery or lovage, but by the nineteenth century it was almost completely forgotten.
A little ancient advice!
Lucius Junius Moderatus Columella (AD 4 – AD 70) is the most important writer on agriculture of the Roman empire. His De Re Rustica in twelve volumes has been completely preserved and forms our most important source on Roman agriculture. Previously known only in fragments, the complete works of Columella were among those discovered in monastery libraries in Switzerland and France between 1414 and 1418.
Columella refers to the plant as "Myrrh of Achaea", because it was grown in Greece which the Romans called Achaica or Achaea.
Cultivation according to Columella,
"Alexanders must be grown from seed in ground dug out with a pastino, particularly close to walls because it likes shade and thrives on any kind of ground: so once you have sown it, if you do not uproot it fully but leave its stems for seed instead, it lasts forever and requires only light hoeing. It is sown from the feast day of Vulcan (August) until the calends of September, but also in January...".
He elaborates on methods of consumption:
"Before alexanders puts out stems, pull up its root in January or February and, after shaking it gently to remove any soil, place it in vinegar and salt; after 30 days, take it out and peel off its skin; otherwise, place its chopped pith into a new glass container or jar and add juice to it as described below. Take some mint, raisins and a small dry onion and grind them together with toasted wheat and a little honey; when all this is well ground, mix with it two parts of syrup and one of vinegar and put it like this into the aforementioned jar and, after covering it with a lid, place a skin over it; later, when you wish to use it, remove the pieces of root with their own juice and add oil to them."
There are a number of sea vegetables that are considered to be delicacies in modern cuisine. Their nutritional value, taste and ease of growing make these crops incredibly popular.
Known as Halophytes or 'salt-tolerant' plants, they have adapted to grow in grows in areas of high salinity either directly in salt water or in coastal areas. They are not ‘salt-loving’ plants and do not have to be grown in saline environments.
Crops such as Salicornia (Sea Samphire), Crithmum (Rock Samphire), Sea Kale (Crambe), Salsola komarovii (Okahijiki) and Salsola soda (Agretti), Sea Aster (Aster tripolium), Sea Beet (Beta vulgaris subsp. maritima), Tetragonia (New Zealand Spinach), Saltbush (Orach) and Alexanders (Smyrnium) can be grown at home or foraged from the wild.
|Average Seed Count||10 Seeds|
|Common Name||Alisanders, Black Lovage
Wildflower of Britain and Ireland
|Other Common Names||Hipposelinon|
|Other Language Names||IR. Lusrán grándubh|
|Synonym||Formerly known as Petroselinium alexandriurn. Syn: Smyrnium Maceron|
|Fruit||Its fruits are black|
|Height||90 to 100cm (36 to 40in).|
|Germination||Seeds require a period of moist, cold conditions before they will germinate.|