Alexanders – A Foraging Guide to Its Food, Medicine and Other Uses

Alexanders has been used as food and medicine since Roman times and was once known as the parsley of Alexandria. Below you’ll learn how this forgotten kitchen garden herb was cultivated for centuries until it was replaced by celery.

Once popular in ancient kitchen gardens now thrives in abundance by the sea. It was cultivated for centuries as a common table vegetable.

Like many Apiaceae plants, alexanders exudes aromatic oils with a pungent, sweet smell that attracts a wide range of pollinating insects. According to Pliny (70 AD), it gained the name Smyrnium because of its distinctive myrrh-like fragrance.

Scientific Name

Smyrnium olusatrum

Family

Apiaceae

Botanical Description of Alexanders

A tall plant, up to 1.5 m high, bearing greenish-yellow flowers in umbrella-like clusters with a pungent, myrrh-like scent. The leaves are bright green and toothed, arranged in groups of three at the end of the leaf stalk. The globular fruit is ridged and ripen to a blackish colour.

Status

Biennial. Mediterranean native.

Habitat and Distribution

Coastal areas and sea cliffs, roadsides and wastelands, ancient ruins, hedgerows, banks and quarries. This Mediterranean native is found in Asia Minor, Syria and the Canary Islands, as well as being naturalised in the British Isles.

Parts Used for Food

Leaves, stalks, fruit and root.

Harvest Time

Spring to summer.

Food Uses of Alexanders

Alexanders was once known as ‘black potherb’ because of its black, spicy seeds. It is often found growing in ancient monastic ruins where it was once cultivated as a kitchen garden herb by monks. The leaves and stalks can be blanched or steamed to add to soups, broths and stews. The plant tastes similar to celery. The flowers can be added as a spice and decoration to salads. The buds can be eaten pickled or fried.

Nutritional Profile of Alexanders

The fruits are a rich source of protein, carbohydrates and fatty acids. The plant contains flavonoids and other bioactive compounds.

Alexanders Recipes

Herbal Medicine Uses of Alexanders

Alexanders was a traditional plant for cleansing the blood and a digestive herb for strengthening the stomach. Seafarers used it to treat scurvy and herbalists used it to relieve stomach and urinary problems. It was also a remedy for headaches, toothaches, swellings of the body, cuts and bruises, asthma and consumption, or tuberculosis.

Other Uses

In pastimes, the stalks were bundled and used as cattle fodder or fuel.

Safety Note

There is little data about the plant’s toxicity. Consult a medical professional before using as a medicinal herb.

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Photo Identification

References

Guarrera, P. M. & Savo, V. (2016) Wild food plants used in traditional vegetable mixtures in Italy. Journal of Ethnopharmacology. [Online] 185202–234.

Bertoli, A. et al. (2004) Volatile constituents of different parts (roots, stems and leaves) of Smyrnium olusatrum L. Flavour and Fragrance Journal. [Online] 19 (6), 522–525.

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Share Your Experience. Leave A Note For Others

  1. Thanks for the info on Alexanders. I knew they were edible but never knew which bit to eat!
    Doesn’t the law abut gathering wild flowers apply to these? I’m never sure about where we stand with foraging.

  2. Really straightforward information what I would like is:
    1. More photos doing know what to forage

    2 maybe a map highlighting where the item grows – maybe not specific but which areas. Be fun while on holiday to see what could be foraged or got which I. Can’t at home. Or just see what I can get at home.

  3. I’m sure I have this growing in my garden or should I say overtaking my garden. The only cause I have to doubt is that you mention eating the roots but as far as I can tell there is no solid root. It is strong smelling and strong taste as expected as I have tried the stems. Could this be something different?

  4. Once the previous year’s Alexander’s have seeded, you should find dried stalks ending in an umbrella shape, with dried, black seeds held by thin stalks which look like bony fingers!
    I use all of the plant, and with the seeds, I whizz them through the coffee grinder and use as one would use black pepper. They are complex and aromatic, going with anything from a plain steak to curries of all types. The coastal areas of Cornwall are good foraging places. Rgs. Steve.

  5. I live on the West Somerset coast and I am surrounded by Alexanders growing just everywhere. From January on I have taken a bracing cliff top walk to gather a good carrier bag full of the early pale green leaves and the tender stems which I peel before cooking.
    As the plants mature I add the flower buds and stew all parts in a pan of salted water, strain, cool and store in the fridge, this keeps well for several days.
    Most mornings I treat myself to a yummy, Alexanders filled omelette made with free range eggs and topped with cottage cheese and a twist of black pepper. Sets me up for the day!
    I am enjoying all this wonderful new information on wild food, thank you.

  6. This spring my horse injured his check ligament .As part of his therapy he was walked in hand for 20 mins . As we walked he foraged and by far his most longed for plant was Alexander’s . I know that it’s believed that horses will forage instinctively for plants to supply nutrients that they need at a certain time. I wonder if there was something in Alexander’s that his body needed to aid healing. Or maybe he just liked the taste ,or both!

  7. I just wondered if there was a specific part of the plant that would be good to look at to be able to tell it apart from hemlock water dropwort. Any tips would be fab, I’m not quite ready to forage for this one until I can confidently eliminate the other one.

    Thanks

    • I’ve had similar concerns. Most recently I have noticed that the flowers are yellow and I think hemlock flowers are white but I need to find more criteria.
      In France I know you can take foraged plants and fungi to the pharmacy to be identified but obviously can’t go there at the moment.

  8. Hi Robin – Alexanders – very helpful details. I can’t see anything on how the roots can be used – any advice please?
    Many thanks,
    Greg

  9. Alexanders are distinct from hemlock (both kinds). Their leaves are far less feathery, they have purple veined bracts at the base of the leaf stalks, the flowers are yellow whereas those on both hemlocks are white. Hemlock also has red dots on the main stem, hemlock water dropwort does not have the red dots, but is quite distinctive, tends to have a large thick stem, feathery leaves, none of the purple veined bracts, and in my experience always grows in streams or rivers or water filled ditches. Hope this helps.

  10. Does anyone have any information on identifying this by the seeds and/or dead skeleton of the plant? I’m pretty sure I’ve found a lot of this and would love to use the seeds this year but am not going to take any chances on it unless I can make a definitive ID. I can’t find much information about identifying Apiaceae by their seeds alone but I have read many of the seeds are distinct enough for it to be done.

  11. Love this article on Alexander’s, I grew some in pots along with my geraniums ?????Inadvertently ( mistook the seeds I had collected in Suffolk back last year for something else!) but they grew abundantly and looked beautiful! Recently clearing out the pots tidying up for winter I “plant app’d” them & too healthy looking to pass up I tried the leaves & the roots in a broth fabulous.. I thought the raw root tasted bit like celeriac but with a kick & cooked rather like parsnips & the leaves celery/ coriander!! Yum

  12. Hello Mr Harford,

    I just bought your great little booklet on alexanders, and I will read it carefully, as I have been obsessed with this plant. I live on the Greek island of Ikaria, and just on our land alone, we have literally thousands of alexanders. This plant has been completely forgotten by the locals. To them, it is good horse and goat fodder at best. Sheep will only take a bite or two. Cows eat it when nothing else is available.
    I have successfully experimented with many recipes, but there is one untold story.

    I read somewhere that the unripe (green) seeds can be pickled (and even be made a spoon sweet, as they call it in Greece), but I have not found any details as to how to do so. Have you (or any of your commenters here) got any idea if these green seeds should be boiled for a couple of seconds (like the flower buds) before pickling, or if they need to be kept in a brine solution first? They are not bitter like capers, so I guess they might just need a couple of seconds of boiling. Or not even that?

    Your imput will be much appreciated.

    Alexander-reviving greetings from Greece

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