Traditional and Modern Use of Alexanders

Alexanders (Smyrnium olusatrum) 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.

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Common Name


Scientific Name

Smyrnium olusatrum



Botanical Description

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.


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 and fruit.

Harvest Time

Spring to summer.

Food Uses

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. REF

Nutritional Profile

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

Alexanders Recipes

Traditional Medicine Uses

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.


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

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Alexanders Notebook

A comprehensive 22 page notebook covering the folklore, food and medicine of Alexanders (Smyrnium olusatrum). It also comes with full colour high resolution photos to help make identification easy … and is delivered to your inbox as a PDF.

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8 thoughts on “Traditional and Modern Use of Alexanders”

  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.

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