By James Duncan
Learning & Engagement Officer
Alexanders (Smyrnium olusatrum) certainly seems a strange name for a plant. The reason for its naming relates to its heritage as a herb of Macedonia, the former kingdom of Alexander the Great. The botanical name smyrnium actually refers to a Greek word meaning myrrh, suggesting that the smell and taste of the two may be similar. It's now well and truly naturalised to the UK, having been introduced from the Mediterranean by the Romans. To them it would have been known as the 'rock parsley of Alexandria.' Once arrived it took vigorously to our fertile soils and can now be found all around the UK, particularly on the coast where it's less susceptible to frost.
Alexanders is an umbellifer belonging to the enormously diverse and widespread carrot (or parsley) family. The yellowish-green flowers are produced on multiple umbels ('umbrella-like' clusters) which quickly unfurl at the merest hint of spring sunshine. It's a relatively easy member of the Apiaceae to identify but it's worth noting the family contains some truly deadly members including Hemlock, Water Dropwort and the photo-toxic Giant Hogweed. Unlike them, however, Alexanders is very much edible.
In fact it's well known for its use in medicine, and all parts can be used. Nicholas Culpeper listed a wide variety of herbal uses including those as far reaching as snakebite and flatulence! He also commented that 'it warmeth a cold stomach.' Otherwise it's been used in the treatment of scurvy, dropsy, menstruation, asthma, as a diuretic and to heal wounds. Its edible nature gives leaves that taste of celery; young stems similar to asparagus; leafy seedlings resembling parsley; spicy seeds comparable to pepper; root used as a parsnip substitute and flower buds that can be pickled and used in salads.
Alexanders © James Duncan