We have much to thank the Romans for – libraries, hot baths, straight roads, aqueducts and stinging nettles among them – but over time we have forgotten the delights of Smyrnium olusatrum, otherwise known as Alexanders. A native of the Mediterranean, Alexanders arrived on our shores with the Romans. The invaders used this versatile plant, with a flavour hovering somewhere between parsley and celery, as a vegetable. Some describe the taste as similar to myrrh, the precious resin which lends the ‘myr’ to Smyrnium. (To complete the translation, ‘olus’, means pot herb or cooking vegetable, whilst ‘atrum’ means as black, in reference to the ripened seed.) Alexanders must have been very happy with the British climate as it soon escaped cultivation and found a home in coastal hedgerows and on clifftops, especially here in Kent.
I love Alexanders because it’s one of the very first umbels to appear in spring, throwing up luscious clumps of glossy lime green foliage topped by chartreuse flower heads. The bees appear to adore it just as much as I do. Alexanders shout summer when everything else is harking back to winter. The contrast between leaves, sea and sky along the clifftops of Broadstairs is enough to send a shock-wave of energy through my system. Throw in a few wild-grown wallflowers with their heavily-scented yellow flowers and you have a life-affirming cocktail of fragrance, form and colour.
Thankfully not everyone has overlooked Alexanders since since it broke free from the monastic gardens that sheltered it after the Romans departed. That great champion of seasonal food, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, describes Alexanders as one of the best wild vegetables of spring. The Romans ate all parts of the plant (they referred to it as the ‘pot herb of Alexandria’), but the most straight-forward bits for modern-day cooking are the fleshy young stems. Cut close to the ground they should be trimmed and stripped of any stringy fibres, just like celery. They can then be steamed for a few minutes, drained and smothered with lashings of salted butter and pepper. Hugh describes the flavour as ‘a little musky, a touch juniper-ish’.
Emma Gunn, a foraging expert at The Eden Project in Cornwall, goes further, suggesting candying the stems like angelica, deep frying the flower heads in tempura batter, using the dried seeds as a substitute for pepper, and roasting the parsnip-like roots. I am no forager, and likely not of Roman descent, but I am already converted. Given the plant tastes of myrrh, I imagine it might also make a good flavouring for my favourite tipple, gin.
Whether or not you’re brave enough to try cooking with it (and make sure you are certain what you are putting in the pot before you do) Alexanders is a wonderful plant for a wild spot in the open garden. On our chalk clifftops it grows shoulder to shoulder with violets, Cineraria maritima, wallflowers and clusters of abandoned daffodils. As always, we can rely on Mother Nature for the best planting suggestions.
Seeds of Smyrnium olusatrum are available from Chiltern Seeds.