Foraging Rock Samphire. Full-on coastal flavour!

A guide to foraging rock samphire. (Crithmum maritimum) Apiaceae family 

Foraging rock samphire, a brilliant excuse to go to the seaside!

An exploration of Britain’s southern and western rocky coastlines will often quickly bring us face to face with the unforgetable rock samphire. A unique-looking wild plant, on these shores at least. I can’t think of another plant that carries its features.

Rock samphire was formerly well known and eaten in vast quantities, but then fell away from popularity. It was once known as ‘poor man’s samphire’, but the plant is anything but poor in my mind. It offers us harvests potentially through most of the year, especially if you live in the more protected coastal areas of South West Britain.

Harvesting rock samphire was once a means for poorer country folk to make a scant and very precarious living. A couple of hundred years ago, foraging rock smaphire was a hair raising and difficult occupation, involving men and boys dangling off cliffs attached to ropes, battling with whatever weather the coastlines threw at them. More than a few died in this process, which led to Shakespeare describing harvesting rock samphire as “that dreadful trade”.

Today’s forager of rock samphire is likely to be someone who has no real awareness of the extreme trials of the people in whose footsteps they follow. We pick the plant for the simple love of acquiring a unique wild vegetable and spice, that can’t be bought in the shops.

Rock samphire botanical description:

Rock samphires foliage is unique mong the British flora and cannot really be misidentified
The fleshy blue green leaflets of rock samphire are unique among UK flora, and make it easy to I/D

This member of the carrot family is one of the easiest to identify. It has blue-green fleshy leaves growing in an overall triangular shape. This triangular shape is a pattern of the carrot family, as are the tell-tale, repeatedly divided sets of leaflets.

Rather than the typical pinnate leaf divisions found on other members of the carrot family, the leaflets are more or less trifoliate (in sets of three’s). The fleshy leaflets are usually linear-oval in shape, with rounded and occasionally forked tips.

Its leaves are sheathed at the base, like other species in the family. During the colder months, it is common to find the leaf tips with a bronze or red tinge, likely as a result of the piercing cold winds that winter can bring. 

The yellow green flowers of rock samphire are resent most of the summer, and help make this plant an easy umbellifer to I/D
Masses of yellow flowers are a common sight on rock samphire during the summer months

You can find rock samphire in flower from late spring. Its flower stems are solid, unlike many that are found here in the UK. As a member of the Apiaceae family, it produces a compound umbel inflorescence. This will typically have more than 12 rays, and the flower heads are approximately 15 – 20 cm wide.

The compound umbel has narrow bracts below and the individual umbels have bracteoles. Flowers are yellow-green, with five petals, approximately 2 mm across. 

Its seeds are plump and often purple-coloured at first. They are oval-shaped, about 8-9 cm long with thick vertical ridges. They eventually turn brown when ripe.

The seeds of rock samphire provide interesting aromatics, well into the winter.
The aromatic seeds of rock samphire seeds can persist well in to the winter

All parts of the plant are aromatic, especially the seeds, which I can only describe as being a cross between carrot, citrus, celery and parsnip.

More than alexanders, this plant  is a pretty safe umbellifer for beginners to forage for, because there really aren’t any plants that it could be mistaken for. Engage your sense of smell, touch, and your sense of place, as these are all as important as closely observing plant dimensions, features and colours. 

For beginners, its well worth noting that the various species in the carrot family tend to smell quite distinct from each other, but they don’t always look so different! With this particular family, if you don’t take note of the subtle chemical clues, you are missing out on vital information.

For a more detailed discussion on the other members of this important family for foragers to know, take a look at the first part of my carrot family article series

If there are any other plants to look out for on a cursary look when foraging rock samphire, it would be one of the water dropworts (Oenanthe species), namely the parsley water dropwort (O.lachinelli). This plant also displays narrow leaflets, and is also found in coastal regions, where it enjoys brackish water.

However, rock samphire has much more fleshy leaves that aren’t pinnately divided, plus it has yellow flowers not white, and lastly but most importantly, smells quite different.

If you want to learn more about the plant family patterns, then read this worksheet on 12 of our common plant families and start fast tracking your plant I/D skills.

Habitats to look in when foraging rock samphire 

The craggy copastlines and rocky cliffs of our south western coastlines are a great place to find rock samphire
Rocky cliffs  and coasts like these in the Gower in South Wales, are a perfect place for rock samphire

Rock samphire is a lover of the numerous crags and shelves on rocky cliffs and will also be found on shingle beaches. You will also find the plant growing on walls and stone work by sandy beaches as well as decorating harbour walls. It won’t generally be found inland or on the eastern coasts of England which tend to be much more sandy.

This plant isn’t really bothered about type of soil. As a rule of thumb, you are likely to encounter rock samphire in the UK from Suffolk, clockwise round the coast to the Scottish Hebrides. Check out this distribution map from the brilliant online flora of Britain and Ireland for more details.

Rock samphire culinary uses

The plant was formerly and perhaps most famously used as a pickle ingredient. Barrels of rock samphire were packed off to London for trade in the markets and for sales on the street.

rock samphire has been harvested and processed into a pickle for many hundreds of years
Rock samphire pickle. A tasty aromatic condiment, it goes well with a number of dishes

For a tasty pickle, simply dry salt for a few hours (to help retain its crunch), and place in a spice-infused vinegar of your choice. I often heat up the samphire in the spiced vinegar, as this quickens the infusing. Typically I like to add mustard seeds, peppercorns, a few cloves, a couple of bay leaves and some chilli flakes in the vinegar infusion. 

As a vegetable, I find its best to prepare and cook it quite simply. During the spring and summer months you may be able to use all of the leaf, including the stalk. But in the autumn and winter I tend to snip off most of the leaf stalk, which otherwise can be too fibrous.

To cook, I generally par-boil in salted water for a few minutes, then fry in butter or olive oil for another two or three minutes. Cooking this way helps to dampen the strong aromatics, which are not to everyone’s palate. 

Cooking twice in water will further reduce its bitterness, while frying in oil or butter off-sets and compliments the taste. The flavour of this plant, like all other plants, can be affected by the growing conditions prior to harvesting.

Lots more plants to forage in winter are found in my summarised seasonal guides, and the new monthly guides that started with 13 wild foods to find and try in January.

If you are interested in learning more about the practical skills of wild food foraging, then my upcoming wild food walks and courses will be worth a browse.

Remember  to sign up for my newsletter, for regular foraging news and alerts on new foraging courses! 

Happy foraging!. 

 

 

Foraging for Alexanders. A versatile & abundant wild food.

Foraging for alexanders. Another never ending wild plant affair.

Dense patches are a common sight when foraging for alexanders. This patch stretched on like this for more than 100 metres

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.

When foraging for alexanders, I uprooted a plant growing happily on top of concrete. See the right angled root growth at the top

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.

The tender young leaf shoots are a favourite foraging nibblee, and will be found all winter when foraging for alexanders

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. 

The yellow compound umbel flowers helps to stand this plant out from the crowd of similar-looking umbellifers

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 

Alexanders leaflets are in groups of three and on close inspection reveal tiny white hydathodes on the serration tips.

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.

A typical sight if foraging for alexanders in spring…a mass of yellow flowers on stems that are now unfit for harvesting

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.

A jar of rhubarb and alexanders jam

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.

Alexanders and rhubarb jam on sourdough bread. A lovely late winter / early spring wild food treat

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!)

With seven plant parts to use, there are lots of reasons to go foraging for alexanders
The jet black seeds of alexanders were formerly used as a seasoning, before pepper became widely available

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.

Happy foraging!