Another Life: Healing herb with spring shoots for munching
Alexanders, aka parsley of Alexandria, was food plant in Egypt long before the pharaohs
Alexanders: built like diagrams at a brainstorming session. Illustration: Michael Viney
Smyrnium olusatrum suddenly appeared outside my window about a decade ago, bursting with vigour and raising its umbels in a pale greeny yellow that appears nowhere else among the myriad greens of the acre except, perhaps, in the new, top leaves of the ash tree with the sun behind them – a bright, uplifting glow.
Alexanders, to give the herb its common if still improbable name, grows nowhere else on the hillside. Our sheep-nibbled fields are somewhat short of hedges where a bird could pause to squeeze out a dropping. So there, between my desk, the fuchsia hedge and the distant reach of blue sea, “parsley of Alexandria” has been left to thrive, and now makes a thicket of well over 100 flower heads, taller than I am and a few lush metres long. A bank of wild blossom, it’s worthy of Bloom.
It’s also a plant built like the diagrams at boardroom brainstorming sessions – all slashing lines, circles and bullet points – and that makes one want to start counting. How many hemispherical flowers in its hemispherical umbels? And how many florets in each cluster? I’d need my other glasses, up close.
There have been some remarkable counts of alexanders’ exponential numbers. Just now the flowers are brimming with powdery pollen, and when the sun gets around the gable to light them up all kinds of flies arrive for a feed of nectar. (They themselves are snatched up from time to time by a skywalking blue tit or wren.) And eventually come all the black seeds, one for each floret. On the island of Steep Holm, off Somerset, where alexanders grow thickly on a rich mix of limestone and guano, an estimated 75,000 plants produce 450 million seeds weighing 22 tonnes. (This had to be somebody’s PhD.)
The plant arrived on the island in the same way it came to Ireland: with the monks. On the warm and frost-free coast of Kerry, for example, its records cluster around the ruins of monasteries and castles as relics of early gardens. But the plant broke free to claim its niche among the other burly coastal umbellifers: hogweed, angelica, cow parsley.
“Parsley of Alexandria” – where did that come from? It was a food plant in Egypt long before the pharaohs, but the herb’s healing attributes also evoke the great medical school of Alexandria. Dioscorides, father of pharmacognosy, discussed alexanders in his De Materia Medica, a standard text for 1,500 years. Drunk in wine, the seeds supposedly promoted menstruation and were among the myriad emmenagogues that also haunt the long history of abortion. Later, in medieval Europe, the herb was to prove carminative, aperient, depurative, diuretic, antiscorbutic, none of which I need just now.