Name: Alexanders (Smyrnium olusatrum)
Otherwise known as: Black Lovage
Habitat: A biennial member of the Umbelliferae, growing to 1.5m in woodland verges in southern Europe and Asia. It has glossy serrated leaves which encircle the stem, and umbels of yellow flowers which are followed by clusters of black seeds.
What does it do: The plant can be found growing in verges and woodland edges in southern Europe and is abundant on the mid-slopes of the Troodos mountains. It is best known for its culinary value rather than as a curative pharmacuetical.
The aromatic seeds have long been ground as pepper and used as a dressing for pot-pourri. In the mountain villages the plant was gathered after Easter and the stems steamed or blanched and served with meat or fish and the umbels of flowers dipped in batter and consumed as a sweet, rather like Elder (Sambucas nigra) fritters. Alternatively, the flowers and young leaves were pickled and used throughout the year to flavour soups, salads and stews. The root, which smells strongly of parsnip, was boiled and served as a supplement in times of famine.
Alexanders share some properties with their fellow Umbelliferae Angelica (Angelica archangelica): not only do they look very similar but were a popular source of candy. Both plants promote appetite and aid digestion. Alexanders are mildly diuretic, the leaves are rich in vitamin C; the juice from the root was applied to cuts and grazes, and an infusion from the root was given to children displaying infantile spasms.
Alexander McCowan. Author of The World’s most Dangerous Plants. Available from Lulu and Amazon