Winter work in the Physic Garden

Alexanders: The Smyrnium olus-atrum is wild throughout Southern Europe, in Algeria, Syria, and Asia Minor.
Origin of Cultivated Plants, Alphonse De Candolle. 1908

Winter work continues in the physic garden; cutting back and clearing, beginning to replant where necessary, and starting to weed again. The Alexanders (Smyrnium alusatrum) are beginning to emerge, both where we want them, and where we don’t, a large patch appearing in the wood chip path we’ve laid. A vigorous plant, it was introduced to Britain by the Romans, thrived and became naturalised. Of all the Umbellifers used as vegetables, this was one of the commonest in gardens for nearly fifteen centuries, and it is now abandoned. (De Candolle, 1908: 91)

Alexanders medicinal, and culinary use, has a long history. Theophrastus (c. 371 – c. 287 BC) was aware of, and wrote about it’s  medicinal value. Pliny the Elder (c. AD 23 –  AD 79) notes that, among other remedies, Olustrum, usually known as hipposelinum, is particularly repulsive to scorpions. The seed of it taken in drink, is a cure for griping of the stomach and intestinal complaints, and a decoction of the seed drunk in honied wine, is a curative in cases of dysuria (painful urination).
Columella, (1st. century AD), in his treatise on agriculture states that, Alisander […] ought to be sown in seed, in a place that is well trenched, especially hard by a wall; because it rejoices in a shade, and thrives and grows strong in any place, how indifferent so ever: and when you have once sown it, if you do not pull it all up by the roots, but leave, and set apart, stalks of here-and-there for seed, it will last an age. He also gives detailed instructions for preserving and pickling the root.
Gerard notes both the medicinal and culinary uses of Alexanders. He quotes Dioscorides who, saith that the leaves and stalks are boiled and eaten, and dressed alone by themselves or with fishes, [ and ] in our age served to the table raw for a sallad herbe.

A common garden plant, and versatile, but its usefulness was on the wane by the 17th century, beginning to be replaced by celery, with which it shares some similarity of taste. Also of ancient origin, celery was considered a medicinal plant until the early years of the 17th century, when it’s food value became increasingly recognised, and European growers began cultivating it as a vegetable for the table, initially for the rich. Lewes Sturtevant, writing in The American Naturalist (1886) notes that, Ray in his Historia plantarum, 1686, says the smallage transferred to culture becomes milder and less ungrateful, whence in Italy and France the leaves and stalks are esteemed as delicacies, eaten with oil and pepper.
By the early 18th century celery had became more widely available; Alphonse de Candolle, commenting on the disappearance of Alexanders states that, At the end of the eighteenth century the tradition existed in England that this plant had been formerly cultivated; later English and French horticulturists do not mention it.

Cultivation techniques; plant breeding; changes in eating habits, all affect the fortunes of plants. While there are directions on the web for foraging the plant in the wild, and plenty of recipes too, Alexanders is no longer cultivated as a vegetable; the plant remains an echo of older practices and diet.

 

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