Foraging for alexanders. Another never ending wild plant affair.
No matter the time of year, it is always time to go foraging for alexanders
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 demand my foraging attention because of their abundance as well as thier versatility in the kitchen. Although their impact may be well known, their nutritional and medicinal virtues need highlighting, especially with austerity defining our economic zetigeist. 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, but thanks to a resurgence in interest in our wild foods, are now rightly regaining favour in the kitchen of the adventurous.
Brought to Britain from the Mediterranean by Romans, who knew it as the ‘rock parsley of Alexandria’, this biennial plant took an instant liking to our rich fertile soils, especially around the coast. It can now be found in large, often unmanageable numbers, in these habitats.
This plant 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 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 as well as foragers can utilise this vigorous growth, and other useful competitive advantages. These includes 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”!
Botanical description to help identification when foraging for alexanders
As a member of the Apiaceae (formerly Umbelliferae) family, extreme caution should always be exercised before picking.
Aside from their well-documented potentially poisonous qualities, their photo-toxicity needs mentioning. And while it is true that a number of the umbellifers are deadly poisonous, alexanders offers the beginner an easy introduction to identifying these notoriously difficult plants and becoming 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 to another aromatic family (Lamiaceae – mints) which tend to produce external 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.
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.
The basal leaves are on large petioles – sheathed at the base, and often found with a pink-tinge. 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.
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).
This short video explains how to identify pinnate-leaved carrot family plants
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.
Fully grown angelica leaves will reveal 3 or 4 pinnate divisions, typically with a purple tinge to each leaflet margin as well as the leaf stalk. Where as 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.
Alexanders produces young flowering stems in February and March. These are solid at first, becoming hollow with age. When cutting you can briefly see a white latex. The stems are branched and slightly ridged with green vertical stripes.
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. More information on identifying plants using their observable plant family patterns can be found here.
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 rice and gram flour.
I think the tender young flower stems are delectable when harvested at the right time. This timing will always be site and specimen specific, as my article on the edibility of edible wild plants discusses. 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 I have created 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! 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 muscavado sugar, vanilla pods and butter, and they make a great wild replacement for cauliflower in a tangy piccalilli (Thanks Anna!)
I 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. Upon flower initiation (up to five weeks before we see evidence), the roots will begin to become more fibrous, so early specimens are best.
Alexanders seed are a great hedgerow spice! They can be made into a pickle, lacto-fermented, or used just as they are, where their volatile constituents and bitter green tones offer slightly different flavour profiles than the mature, black seeds.
They offer similar textures and a hint of a pepper-like top note. If pan roasted first, the flavour profile softens and balances out further, similar to using its family relatives coriander, cumin, assa-feotida, and fennel.
A selection of my wild food recipes, including alexanders and rhubarb jam, can be found here.
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 from from the shop.