Photo Credit: Amy Dadachanji
April is the perfect time to see the lime green foliage of Alexanders (Smyrnium Olisatrum), also known as Black Lovage, or Horse Parsley. The whole plant is edible, from roots to seed. The plant was introduced to the UK by the Romans, who called it the ‘pot herb of Alexandria’ on account of its versatility. It is a much overlooked edible vegetable which colonises cliff tops and coastal hedgerows, sometimes in dense stands. It is also common among the sites of medieval monastery gardens, which indicates something of its culinary history.
In the spring Alexanders produces copious yellow-green flowers in pretty umbels and, in the autumn, equally copious black seeds. Growing to a height of 50 to 120cm it can’t be missed, which makes it a good candidate for wild foraging. It is regarded by many as one of the best wild vegetables of spring.
Foragers say it tastes similar to angelica and parsley, or midway between celery and parsley, but most people agree whatever it ‘tastes like’, Alexanders can become quite bitter later on in the season as its leaves darken, so they are best picked earlier on in spring. It is probably this fact, accompanied by the easy cultivation of celery, that accounted for Alexanders demise as a vegetable. There are many different ways of bringing out the flavour of Alexanders, depending on which part of the plant, and which growth phase it is in. The table below is my handy kitchen guide:
When to harvest
How to prepare
Stems can be picked from February but they’re at their best when the first flower buds appear in late March and April. Early on, they have both a softer flavour and texture. Using stems is probably the most common edible use. Stalks normally need peeling as their fibres can be quite tough.
Prepare similarly to asparagus; try peeling the stems and boiling them for five to ten minutes, or until tender. Stems have also been candied similar to Angelica.
Harvest at any time, but early spring is best to avoid increasing bitterness of the leaves.
Young Alexanders leaves gently cooked in butter are delicious. Larger leaves can be blanched briefly. Younger leaves can also be eaten raw in salads.
End of growing season in 2nd year (Alexanders is biennial and produces quite large carrot/parsnip-like roots in the second year).*
Scrub, peel and slice the roots similar to parsnips; toss them in olive oil, season, then roast at 180 degrees Celsius for 20 minutes or so, until tender.
Harvesting depends on your intended use (see next column).
Unopened flower buds may be used in salads or cooked. Both the ripe and unripe flower heads can be dipped in tempura batter and deep fried until golden, in the Japanese style.
Harvest in autumn once the seeds have matured and turned black. The old herbalists used to call Alexanders seeds ‘Black Pot Herb’.
The seeds can be used like cardamom or black pepper for their aromatic quality. They lend themselves well to casseroles, stews and curries.
* NOTE that 'uprooting' any wild plant in the UK is illegal under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 unless you have authorisation. Similar laws may exist in other countries. Some gardeners cultivate self seeding Alexanders at the periphery of their gardens to avoid such problems. Many farmers, however, find Alexanders to be somewhat invasive. This is not true for horses who have a fondness for the vegetable.
Photo Credit: In Which I (Blog)
Alexanders is a bit of a wanderer. Although it came to the UK from Mediterranean shores, prior to that it originated in the Canary Isles. In recent years, observers have noticed the plant favouring more inland rather than coastal locations; particularly roadside hedgerows. This alteration in habit is thought to be aided by heavy salting of roads which seems to reproduce coastal conditions.
This plant is not poisonous but related plants with similar appearance may be extremely so. It is very important that you know how to identify this plant, and differentiate it from similar looking poisonous plants. There are some good identification manuals mentioned in the bibliography, and the table below summarises the main points to look out for.
Alexanders is a member of the parsley family with a solid stem which becomes hollow and grooved with age. The leaves are bluntly toothed, the segments ternately divided and the segments flat, not fleshy.
Edible. Cow-Parsley & Alexanders both have lightly-ribbed stems.
Poisonous. Hemlock has smooth stems, with slight purpley blotchings. Hemlock isn't an "Umbellifer" at all, it's a Solonaceous plant (related to Potato/Tomato/D Nightshade/Capsicums etc ) & so is quite different.
Hemlock- Water Dropwort- Cowbane
Hemlock-Water Dropwort tends to grow only along rivers & streams & has very deeply ribbed stems; it is even more poisonous than Hemlock. Cowbane also likes very damp places. It has serrated leaves, quite unlike the "feathery" ones of Hemlock or Cow-Parlsey.
Food for Free- Richard Mabey. Kindle Edition, April 2012.
Wild Food: A Complete Guide for Foragers- Roger Phillips. Kindle Edition, April 2014.
Hamlyn Guide to Edible and Medicinal Plants of Britain and Northern Europe- Edmund Launert. Hamlyn Publishing Group Limited, Sept 1981.
River Cottage Hedgerow Handbook (Book Number 7)- John Wright and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. Bloomsbury Publishing, May 2010.
A Natural History of the Hedgerow: and Ditches, Dykes and Dry Stone Walls- John Wright. Kindle Edition, May 2016.