Another Life: Healing herb with spring shoots for munching

Alexanders, aka parsley of Alexandria, was food plant in Egypt long before the pharaohs


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.

What made the Romans take it to Britain, however, and the monks more westerly still, was more probably the plant’s worth as a vegetable: spring shoots for munching like celery, thick taproot to pickle for winter meals.

Rather more recently, concern for biodiversity made the Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations look again at neglected native plant foods of the past that might again provide nutrition for the poor. Alexanders appeared in the report by Spanish authors, wedged between blue-starred borage and the skinny but tasty root of scorzonera.

They decided that modern taste was shifting away from hot, pungent flavours – where does that leave chilli-with-everything? – and cultivation of alexanders in Latin America and the Far East was giving way to sweeter, more tender celery. The stems of alexanders need skinning and blanching to quell their bitterness, and are best cut before the flowers come out: we’ve left it too late – again.

In atonement, I have just had my first meal of the leaves of Good King Henry, or Chenopodium bonus-henricus, another imported monastic pot herb formerly widespread in the countryside. I dimly remember sowing seeds of it in the early days of our self-sufficient experiments, and a lone survivor has grown a fine bush this spring. It makes a slightly bitter spinach that, if you had nothing better, would do fine, or you could wrap it in an omelette.

Good King Henry’s native relative, Chenopodium album – fat hen or, in Irish, praiseach bhráthar – has “more iron and protein than spinach or cabbage”, according to Wild and Free: Cooking from Nature (Wolfhill Publishing, €10.99).

This a welcome new edition of the book written and published in 1978 by Cyril and Kit Ó Céirín, with a new introduction by the slow-food enthusiast Sally McKenna. Living in Lisdoonvarna, handy to the Burren, the Ó Céiríns were well placed to test and compile the traditional consumption of blackberries, crab apples, rose hips, dandelions, nettles and more. They also give a practical guide to wild home wine-making, whose time may indeed have come round again.

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