Alexanders, Smyrnium olusatrum, is an Edible Hedgerow Plant, Introduced By the Romans & Was Frequently Grown In UK Veg Gardens Until Around The 1800s.
The Romans called it Pot Herb of Alexander, others have called it black lovage, alisanders and horse parsley. But whatever name you use, it was a popular plant, perhaps because you can eat every part of it.
Though Mediterranean in origin it grows well here where I live in East Devon on sites up to a mile or two from the sea. It rarely goes further inland of its own volition, but if planted and tended seems to do well in gardens in most of the UK.
Away from the coasts it is often found on old monastic sites where it would have been grown for eating and for its medicinal uses.
Even if not grown to eat it’s a plant that looks spectacular in the garden. In good conditions I t can grow to 6 feet in height, so does well at the back of a border where it lends an architectural presence to stately beds.
The flower head is spectacular and blows in the breeze as can be seen in the video below (filmed early April 2022). The flowering head indicates its family, the Umbellifers, and it reminds me a little of its cousin, the wild carrot.
Starting at the top of the plant the black seed described as peppery, lemony, Myrrh-like and spicy. It can be used as a topping when baking bread, ground as a spice or used in a host of other ways.
The stems are described as having a flavour between celery and parsley (I’m not sure I like the sound of that at all. Separately they sound good, together I’m not so sure). The older stems can be blanched to eat as part of meat and two veg whilst young shoots can be eaten raw in salads.
Flower buds can be eaten pickled or fried.
Leaves are best steamed or better added to soups and stews and cooked long and slow until they melt into the liquor. Remove any fibre from the oldest stems
The roots are quite fleshy and can be roasted or stewed depending on your preferences. Some users say the best way to think about the roots is to substitute them where you’d normally cook parsnips or celeriac.
Alexanders started to fall out of flavour when celery started being grown more extensively. But foraging has started to bring them back into favour and top end restaurants now sometimes serve them as a delicacy.
Beware Poisonous Cousins
Related species such as Hemlock Water Dropwort are very poisonous. So be very sure you have picked Alexanders before you cook and eat them.
How To Grow Alexanders, Smyrnium olusatrum
Alexanders isn’t too fussy over soil type and once its gets going will grow deep taproots that find plenty of moisture and nutrients.
The easiest way to grow Alexanders is to buy a plant from a recognised expert. Then just pop it in the soil wherever you want it to grow. It might need an initial watering to get it going in hot weather but other than this is likely to need little attention.
As for position and winter protection, Alexanders is frost hardy down to around -15C and will grow during the winter. In fact, it can be cropped during the winter months and can fill those hungry months when little else is available.
There’s more on unusual veg to grow in the U.K. if you follow the link.
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