Alexanders was the unintended consequence of a February snowdrop-seeking walk on the coastal path near Dunwich, Suffolk. The foliage of alexanders (Smyrnium olusatrum) is one of the earliest out in late winter, and I was not disappointed. There was fresh green alexander foliage as far as I could see carpeting the woodland alongside the path.
To me, alexanders, a hardy wild plant – one of the ‘pot-herbs’ of medieval times – is a magical-sounding name for a plant. It is said to be named for one of history’s giants, Alexander the Great. And I just love saying its Latin name… it sounds so rich and foreign… named for the ancient city of Symrna (in modern Turkey it is Izmir). And indeed, foreign is what alexanders once were, since old books always tell us that the plant came to our shores from the Mediterranean courtesy of the Romans. Well, the Romans did a good thing.
Last year I scattered seed of alexanders (CN Seeds) in a dry part of the garden, against one of the walls. Also known as black lovage, it is a biennial or short-lived perennial. It self-seeds like mad in its second growing year, so once you have it, you have it! It is a bit like angelica in its generosity, and is also a members of the umbel family. You can weed out seedlings, but where you leave them plants will grow into statuesque specimens up to a metre tall. Alexanders grow well in sandy, well-drained sites in sun or light shade.
When I returned from the snowdrop/alexanders walk I checked out the home-sown seedlings and saw that although not quite as ahead as the ones on the coast, they were showing that same fresh apple-green foliage and were covering the ground well.
Yesterday (early April) I decided that the time had come to harvest leaves and stems for the pot. I tasted the stems and leaves uncooked and they had a strong aromatic flavour, a bit like aniseed, but not quite so strong. The taste is more like celery or very strong parsley and the stems have celery-like ridges. I decided to steam the stems, so snipped off all the foliage which I have kept in fresh water to use in an omelette later today.
The flower buds are also edible, good in salads, and cooked, and when the black seeds appear, apparently they are good to grind for a spicy condiment.
I washed the stems in cold water to get rid of any soil and insects, then steamed them for 5 minutes (longer depending on the thickness of the stems). After draining the water off, I squeezed lemon juice onto the stems and a dob or two of butter, before munching into them… and wow, I am hooked on alexanders!
Although I liked the taste of the fresh stems and leaves, I think I prefer the taste and the texture of alexanders cooked.