Foraging for Alexanders

Foraging for alexanders (Smyrnium olusatrum) Apiaceae family. Another never-ending wild plant affair.

No matter the time of year, it’s always time to go foraging for this easy to identify carrot family plant.

Foraging for alexanders, just like many other plants I cover in these pages, is a never-ending affair, offering us all year round harvesting opportunities.

This plant deserves our attention. In fact, invasive plants such as alexanders tend to demand my foraging attention because of the plentiful supply of plants as well as their versatility in the kitchen.

Because the plant is so invasive, landowners will be happy for you to go foraging for alexanders on their land
Landowners will probably be happy for you to go foraging for alexanders on their land as it’s a very invasive plant
Typical rampant display from the invasive alexanders on a dyke near Wells-next-by-sea, Norfolk

Although their environmental impact may be well known, their nutritional and medicinal virtues are not and need highlighting.

This is especially true after austerity and coronavirus continue to define our economic zeitgeist. Invasive edibles need harvesting, processing, experimenting with, and eating!

A flick through antiquated gardening books will show that alexanders is one of numerous wild edible species that were formerly consigned to the compost heap of history.

Now though, thanks to a resurgence in interest in our wild foods, these plants are rightly regaining favour in the kitchens of the adventurous.

Pretty much all of the coastline in the British Isles will provide opportunities for alexanders

Alexanders was brought to Britain from the Mediterranean by Romans, who knew it as the ‘rock parsley of Alexandria’.

It took an instant liking to our rich fertile soils, especially at the coast.

Nowadays, it will be found in large, often unmanageable numbers, in and around the seaside. This includes our inner-city seaside ports like Bristol.

Alexanders is endowed with some extraordinary abilities to thrive. I once picked a specimen, from what I thought was soil covered by leaves, only to find a large concrete slab just a couple of inches below the decaying leaf mold. 

Yet a substantial tap-root had adapted to these surroundings and grown in an ‘L’ shape and was as big as if grown vertically in a rich, loamy soil.

Permaculture designers looking for easy yielding plants, as well as us foragers, can utilise this vigorous growth and its other useful competitive advantages. 

These include the setting of copious amounts of freely germinating seed and a winter/spring growing season. Both of these traits ensure that masses of plants establish themselves early each autumn.

Because of its vigorous/invasive nature, foragers are likely to discover that simply asking landowners if you can uproot the plant (a legal requirement), will be greeted with “Please! Take as much as you want”!

How to identify alexanders 

If you are unsure about the term ‘umbellifer’, then a reminder to head to our glossary of terms for explanations. As a member of the carrot family, extreme caution should always be exercised before picking.

While it’s true that the carrot family plants overall are often difficult to correctly identify, here in the UK the yellow species are less common and actually quite easy .
  

And while it is also true that a number of the umbellifers are deadly poisonous, alexanders offers the curious beginner a safe introduction to identifying these notoriously difficult plants.

Start with the easy ones, and in time you become well acquainted with the carrot family as a whole. 

Alexanders is a hairless and aromatic plant, containing its essential oil glands within the leaves. This contrasts with another aromatic family – (Lamiaceae – mints) which tend to produce external oil-bearing glandular hairs.

So when seeking out the aromatics unique to a species, crushing and sniffing a leaf is, as ever, vital. More information on medicinal plant constituents and their actions can be found here.

What’s in a name?

The jet black seeds of alexanders were popularly used in Britain until black pepper became freely available

The generic name Smyrnium alludes to the myrrh-like aromatics, whereas the specific epithet olusatrum refers to the black colour of the mature seeds and the skin on the roots.

Another common name is horse parsley. Maybe we could learn from our equine friends, by employing common sense, getting rid of ‘fly-grazing’ Byelaws and introduce horse grazing on problem areas of alexanders invasion (and there are many examples all over the UK).

Alexanders leaf and leaflet guide

The basal leaves are on large petioles – sheathed at the base and often found with a pink-tinge.

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The hollow petioles are shaped like flattened cylinders and covered with thin lines. Upper stem leaves are sessile (without stalks).

When out foraging for alexanders, it is possible that untrained eyes may confuse it with wild angelica (Angelica sylvestris) or wild celery (Apium graveolens), which can both be found sharing the same coastal habitat.

The base of alexanders’ leaf will have a somewhat pink-striped sheath

On close inspection however, you will notice a number of clear differences. Alexanders leaves are triangular-shaped – like numerous umbellifers, but the leaflets appear in groups of three (ternate) – in contrast to many other relatives with pinnate divisions (pinnae: Latin – feather).



Alexanders leaflets are in groups of three and on close inspection reveal tiny white hydathodes at the tips of each serration
On close inspection, alexanders leaflets reveal tiny white hydathodes at the tips of each serration

The glossy lime-green leaves of alexanders are able to be identified with a single characteristic: the tiny white hydathodes (glands that exude water on the teeth or tips of a leaf). These are not found on any other umbellifer in Britain. The leaflets are oval(ish), with rounded crenate-serrations.

Wild angelica leaves are 3-4 times pinnate, often with a purple edge to the leaflets

In contrast, fully grown angelica leaves will show 3 to 4 pinnate divisions, typically with a purple tinge to each leaflet margin as well as the leaf stalk.

Whereas celery has glossy, once pinnate leaves, with lobed leaflets, on deeply grooved and ridged petioles. The distinctive celery smell immediately sets it apart from other umbellifers.

Wild celery leaves are only once pinnate, and their leaf stalks have a distinctive deep groove

 

 

Alexanders in flower

Alexanders produces young flowering stems in February and March. These are solid at first, becoming hollow with age. When cutting you may briefly see a white latex. The stems are branched and slightly ridged with green vertical stripes. 

Alexanders is one of our earliest flowering tap-rooted biennial plants.

The umbrella-like inflorescence quickly unfurls in early spring sunshine. The yellow flowers have five petals, and are followed by the large aromatic seeds – green at first, turning black when ripe. 

Yellow flowering alexanders will appear in bloom in late winter in the UK

Cookery ideas using alexanders

The leaves can be added to soups or used sparingly in salads when chopped. The young emerging leaf shoots with their tender white bases are great steamed, stir-fried or battered in gram flour or rice flour.

Alexanders lends itself to preserving and makes a great early season jam with rhubarb

For me,  the tender young flower stems are delectable when harvested at the right time. The timing is all and will be site-specific.

Stems need to be picked well before the flowers are out, to ensure tenderness. When steamed, they are magnificent served simply, with cracked black pepper and butter or olive oil.

In other pages you can find a guide to harvesting wild plants as well as a discussion on how the timing of harvests greatly influences edibility. 

For lovers of preserves, the stems also make a superb late-winter jam when combined with early forced rhubarb. Somehow, the two plants produce a melon or kiwi fruit flavour! 

Rhubarb and alexanders transform their flavours into something kiwi-like when brought together in a jam
sweet-pickled and aromatic alexanders stems

I recommend leaving the thinner stems unpeeled, as the stripes add more visual impact in the finished product.

The stems can be candied if you fancy, just like angelica, but most of the aromatics are lost with repeated heating, and its a fiddly, time-consuming business.

Better still, the very young, tightly packed flower buds can be made into an unusual aromatic fudge-like sweet, with muscovado sugar, vanilla pods and butter, and they make a great wild replacement for cauliflower in a tangy piccalilli (Thanks Anna!) 

I occasionally use the roots in soups, or par-boiled, before being sautéed or roasted. They have a somewhat floury texture when roasted, but will retain a hint of bitterness.

it’s worth knowing that flower initiation begins up to five weeks before we see evidence.  During this process, the roots will begin to become more fibrous, so early specimens are best.

The seeds are a great hedgerow spice! They can be made into a pickle when green, with vinegar, but I’m sure they will naturally ferment.

Or just use as they are when black and mature, either raw or in your cooking. If you are pan-roasting first, like with other whole or ground spices, the flavour profile will soften and balance out further, similar to using its family relatives coriander, cumin, assafeotida, and fennel.

This plant is another of the 52 featured species in my foragers playing cards – a perfect way to learn and play! These cards together with my other sets of wild food cards, are available currently on request. Please contact me for further details.

Happy foraging!

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