Alexanders - Smyrnium olusatrum

Main features

  • Glossy pale yellow-green leaves emerge in winter

  • Leaves are bluntly toothed and get darker as they age 

  • Leaflets occur in groups of three

  • The base of the leaf stem is sheathed with red veins visible on the leaf sheath

  • Stems become hollow with age

  • Umbels of yellow flowers appear in Spring

  • Large black seeds appear after flowers have died back

  • Prefers coastal areas but can be found in woodland, roadsides and gardens

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Alexanders - Smyrnium olusatrum

Edible plant - intermediate/advanced

Other common names: Horse Parsley, Alisanders, Smyrnium


Scientific name meaning: The Greek word Smyrnion, meaning Parsley, is the orgina of the genus name Smyrnium. Olusatrum is derived from Latin and means "black garden herb". This is a reference to the black colour of its seeds

Season - when will I find it? Winter to summer 

Habitat - where will I find it? Alexanders likes the salt found in coastal areas. However, due to road and path salting, it is now found in other areas. It can also be found less frequently away from salty areas. 

It is a native of the Mediterranean region, but is well established in Britain. It was introduced by the Romans

Description - what does it look like? The young leaf shoots of this biennial plant start to emerge in winter. Those young leaves are glossy and yellow-green in colour, getting darker as they age.

The leaves are bluntly toothed, and consist of groups of three leaflets. 

The base of each leaf stem is enclosed in a red-veined sheath. 

The stems of the plant become hollow with age.

Yellow umbels of flowers appear from early spring until late spring, eventually producing large black seeds

Possible lookalikes The most concerning lookalike of Alexanders is Hemlock Water Draopwrt (Oenanthe crocata), which is deadly poisonous. It is because of this, and because so many people confuse the two when pointed out on courses, that Alexanders has been classed by us as intermediate/advanced. Hemlock Water Dropwort has much more deeply lobed and/or toothed leaves than Alexanders. Also, the upper surface of the leaflets of Alexanders are much shinier than Hemlock Water Dropwort. 

Some may also confuse Alexanders with Wild Angelica (Angelica sylvestris). However, this has white flowers, and a dull, matt leaf surface.

Wild Celery (Apium graveolens) also has a very similar appearance, but this is also edible and has white flowers

Use as a food The whole plant is strongly aromatic and can be too overpowering for some. It has a very strong celery taste. The young shoots and leaves can be eaten raw in salads, or cooked. The older leaves need to be cooked. The stems can also be eaten raw or cooked. The roots cans also be used, and should be cooked. 

The black seeds of Alexanders can be put into a spice mill and ground to be used as a condiment

Use in herbal medicine Has been used to treat menstrual problems and asthma, as well as being used as an immune system booster, in the past
If you are suffering from any ailment or need medical advice, please see your General Practitioner

Hazards A member of the carrot family, so those with a celery allergy should do a tolerance test

Importance to other species Flowers provide an early food source for pollinators. It is eaten by the larvae of the Walker's Lanark Tortrix moth

Always stay safe when foraging. You need to be 100% sure of your identification, 100% sure that your foraged item is edible, and 100% sure that you are not allergic to it (it is good practice to always try a small amount of any new food you are consuming). If in doubt, leave it out!