Alexanders: the forgotten vegetable

Introduced by the Romans, Alexanders (Smyrnium olusatrum) was once grown as a garden herb and culinary vegetable throughout Britain. After 200 years relegated to the hedgerows, this 'wild celery' is starting to gain favour once again

The yellow flower umbel of the Alexanders (Smyrnium olusatrum) plant
Alexanders was once the most commonly-grown pot herb

There is a hint of the faraway in Alexanders' scientific name — Smyrnium means myrrh like, a reference to the plant's aromatic oil, and olusatrum means black herb, because of its jet-black seeds, which form in late summer. The plant was also known in Latin as Petroselinum alexandrinum, the Parsley of Alexandria, and was a highly-popular herb in the Mediterranean during the reign of Alexander the Great (336BC-323BC) (Prance & Nesbitt, 2005). It is, in fact, native to Macedonia, Alexander’s birth place, and was sometimes referred to as Macedonian parsley (Gerard, 1636).

Alexanders was well-recognised in the classical world, and was recorded by both the Greek natural historian Theophrastus (371BC-287BCE) and the Roman Pliny the Elder (c23AD- 79AD), who wrote extensively about its properties. It was in common use at the time of the Roman colonisation of Britain, and was one of many culinary species their armies brought with them following their invasion in 43AD.

Alexanders (Smyrnium olusatrum) along the side of a road
All parts of the plant can be eaten

All parts of this aromatic biennial herb were eaten: the fleshy stems were consumed like celery or angelica, the leaves like parsley, the thickened tap-roots were roasted like parsnips and the black seeds could be used as a pepper-like spice. Roman recipes for Alexanders include serving the stems with a side of raisin sauce (Grant, 2008) and it was also used as a general-purpose herb.

Monks took up the species' cultivation, as evidenced by the plant's endurance today near the remains of monastic gardens. They may have used it for medicinal as well as culinary purposes — several old British herbals refer to the medicinal properties of Alexanders, including Gerard (1636), which mentions its use by apothecaries. Ancient Greek and Roman literature described medicinal uses for all parts of the plant: leaves were used as an antiscorbutic (to cure scurvy), the fruit as a stomachic and anti-asthmatic, and the juice of the root for its aromatic, appetite stimulant, diuretic and laxative properties (Maggi et al, 2012). As well as its antiscorbutic properties, it also had a reputation among sailors for clearing the blood, and ships would set down at Anglesey just to collect the herb (Allen & Hatfield, 2004).

A page describing Alexanders (Smyrnium olusatrum) in Gerard's British herbal
Alexanders is described in Gerard's old British herbal

Alexanders' popularity endured for several centuries and in medieval cuisine it was served commonly as a table vegetable (Randall, 2003). Later, Thomas Tusser's One Hundred Points of Good Husbandry, published in 1557, gave recommendations for "herbes and rootes for sallets and sauce", suggesting the use of "Alexanders, at all times". It is also recorded from the 17th century as an ingredient in the staple peasant dish, pottage. Robert May in his work The Accomplisht Cook (1660) includes a recipe for Ellicksander Pottage, in which the plant is boiled with oatmeal and enriched with butter and salt (Foods of England, nd). Parkinson's Theatricum Botanicum (1640) describes the preparation of Lenten pottage, a gruel commonly eaten in Ireland in the run-up to Lent, which favoured a combination of Alexanders, watercress and nettles. The plant's leaves were said to sharpen the appetite and its inclusion in the dish was as a digestive aid, to counteract "viscous humours" from an over-consumption of fish.

Over the years, Alexanders accumulated other common names, including black lovage, hellroot (a probable corruption of heal-root), skit and horse parsley. The latter acknowledges that the herb may also have some history as fodder, and could have been used to supplement horses in the early spring, when there is little greenery growing (Wright, 2009). On the Isle of Man, it was known as lus-ny-ollee and was used by vets to treat animals with sore mouths (Allen & Hatfield, 2004).

From the 18th century onwards, however, Alexanders' use had started to decline in favour of celery (Apium graveolens), a milder-tasting alternative, which began to be mass-grown. By the time Mrs Beeton had compiled her Book of Household Management in 1861, Alexanders was still "used in this country in the same way in which celery is" but could only be found growing wild on the sea coasts, as "its cultivation is now almost entirely abandoned" (Foods of England, nd).

Alexanders (Smyrnium olusatrum) leaves
Alexanders is one of the earliest umbellifers to emerge

Although its popularity had waned, this Mediterranean native had already become naturalised, as far as the British climate would allow, and had spread throughout the isles, distributed most heavily in warmer coastal regions and in the south. It dislikes frosts, so is often found sheltered behind walls or along hedgerows, or in the curtilages of historic buildings where it is a relic of cultivation. It has gained some territory inland, which has been attributed to the heavy salting of roads during the winter, reducing frosts and reproducing coastal conditions (, nd). Almost all of its inland sites are on chalks, limestones or neutral to lime-rich clays, but nearly all these sites are also at or near old human habitation (Randall, 2003).

Alexanders is the earliest of the umbellifers to emerge, and its tender young shoots, which taste like a cross between celery and parsley, can be foraged as early as late January. This glossy-leafed member of Apiaceae or carrot family, which reaches around knee-height, begins to form its bright, yellow-green flower heads from late spring to early summer. Like many carrot family members, it produces aromatic oils that attract a wide range of pollinating insects. The seeds contain an essential oil called cuminaldehyde, which is responsible for its distinctive scent, a mixture of myrrh and cumin (Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust, nd).

Scientific papers from the last decade often refer to Alexanders as "the lost|" or "forgotten" vegetable, and recent studies have argued for its recognition on both a nutritional and medical level. Quassanti et al (2014) found Alexanders (Smyrnium olusatrum) oil, which contains high levels of isofuranodiene, caused cell death in human colon cancer cells. It is also showing potential as a neuroprotective agent (Mustafa et al, 2016). This was supported by encouraging research last year that demonstrated isofuranodiene extracted from Alexanders protected rats against the effects of acute ischemic stroke (Yousefi-Manesh et al., 2021). Caprioli et al (2014) examined the herb's nutritional profile, and found the seeds to be a "rich source of protein and carbohydrates", supporting "its recovery as a vegetable". They also noted that the levels of ascorbic acid were in keeping with Alexanders' traditional use as an antiscorbutic.


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