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Smyrnium olusatrum - Alexanders

Phylum: Magnoliophyta - Class: Equisetopsida - Order: Apiales - Family: Apiaceae

Alexanders

Anyone who says they love the scent of spring flowers obviously hasn't caught a whiff of these stinkers, especially when they are fading.

Identification

Smyrnium olusatrum is a hairless biennial umbellifer growing to a height of 1.5m. The yellowish-green glossy leaves are divided and bluntly toothed. Young stems are solid but become hollow when old; the upper branches are usually opposite.

Closeup of Alexanders

Borne in dense umbels, the yellowish Flowers of Alexanders are hermaphrodite (having both male and female reproductive organs); they have no sepals. The seeds change colour from light green to black as they ripen during July and August..

Distribution

This Mediterranean plant was probably introduced to Britainby the Romans, who may have used it as a general-purpose vegetable. (The leaves and young shoots can be eaten either raw or cooked, although the bitter taste is not universally popular.) Alexanders grows wild in most coastal parts of Britain and Ireland, and in southern and central Britain it is also found in many inland locations. Further north this warm-climate cannot cope inland with winter's extreme cold, and it is confined to sheltered coastal areas.

Smyrnium olusatrum is common throughout central and southern mainland Europe

Alexanders, Pembrokeshire

Habitat

Particularly were the soil is enriched and has been disturbed, Alexanders colonises waste land, roadside verges, woodland edges, scrub and and cliff tops.

Although mainly coastal, this umbellifer seems to have benefited from the salting of roads, and so has moved inland nearly always on or near roadside verges.

Blooming Times

This mainly coastal plant is a very early blooming member of the family Apiaceae, and you will see swathes of it in springtime along hedgerows and onthe slopes leading down to sheltered coves.

The umbrella-like yellow flower heads open in April, and by July the seeds are beginning to ripen and turn dark brown.

Leaves of Alexanders

Uses

All parts of this plant are considered edible, but older leaves and stems are usually cooked; only young leaves and shoots are worth adding raw to salads. The first new leaves appear during winter, before many other edible wild plants are available. In the distant past Smyrnium olusatrum was used in many herbal remedies, but nowadays other plants are generally considered superior. (We strongly advise against eating or using as medicines any plants without first obtaining qualified professional advice.)

Etymology

The generic botanical name Smyrnium comes from the Greek word smyrnion, which means myrrh. It suggests that the smells of Alexanders and of myrrh may be similar.The specific epithet olusatrum comes from the Latin olus-, a garden herb, and -ater, black - referring to the seeds.

The pictures of Alexanders shown on this page were taken in West Wales during April.


Volume 1

We hope that you have found this information helpful. If so we are sure you would find our books Wonderful Wildflowers of Wales, vols 1 to 4, by Sue Parker and Pat O'Reilly very useful too. Buy copies here...

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