Alexanders, Smyrnium olusatrum, is an old plant. There are records of it being written about, cooked with, used as fodder in Ancient Roman times and before. It’s named for Alexander the Great, or perhaps Alexandria the city that AtG named for himself – who knows. It remained common and well used across Europe right through medieval times and up until about two hundred years ago, when celery replaced it in most uses. And then it just quietly got forgotten.
I have a friend who *loves* culinary adventures and strange and wonderful ingredients, but who finally accepted that she has a black thumb. (I disagree, but that’s another story.) As a housewarming present when we moved in here, she gave me her seed box – filled with out-of-date half-used packets of seeds for edible plants I hadn’t heard of before (which is always impressive given my broad plant knowledge, but also extremely fun because I know there are so many more plants to learn about than I already know). One was alexanders. I did some reading on alexanders to work out best planting conditions, gave the seeds a soaking, planted them out around the pistachio tree in autumn and waited. Nothing happened. I figured the seeds were too old. But then in firstspring I found these plants coming up that looked a little like celery, and eventually realised what they were. They’d been happy to grow, they just needed to choose their own time and conditions to do it in.
Somewhere in that research I posted to Facebook about alexanders, and called it a “forgotten plant”. Mainly because it’s never seen on our grocery shelves and I’ve not seen it in edible garden plant listings. I always figure if I’ve managed to not hear of a “common European-origin garden vegetable” or “Mediterranean weed” in nearly forty years of living in European-origin culture and Mediterranean climate then the mainstream has probably forgotten about it. I got an immediate rebuttal from a friend that it wasn’t forgotten at all. She is a scholar of medieval history, and grows it and other common medieval plants to intrigue and provoke the students she tutors. She confessed though that she didn’t use it in cooking as she wasn’t confident on how to safely do so.
I was reminded of this problem recently when someone posted an article on Facebook about steeping alexanders in gin, and asked if anybody had any. Turns out the internet two years on has many more articles about using alexanders. Most of them repeat historical word-of-mouth which is typically-for-the-Internet vague and untrustworthy, and I couldn’t help but think of my medieval scholar friend. But the general consensus is that the plant was widely used in past times, is basically edible/safe in all parts (always a question with the Apiaceae), and can pretty much get handled like celery, which is the vegetable we replaced it with in the mainstream.
I didn’t get any flowers or seeds from the alexanders last year – they died back during summer and I thought that was the end of them. But this autumn as the soil cooled they re-emerged, I can only presume from an underground root. I am hoping that like many other members of the Apiaceae – the family that includes celery, carrot, parsley, ajwain, cumin, fennel, dill and many others – they are biennials and come to flowering in their second turn of the wheel.
Last night I wandered out and picked some leaves and stems to try eating it. The flavour is distinctly Apiaceae. It’s, yes, a lot like celery, but with an extra high-note of something… incense-y, perhaps. Some descriptions mentioned myrrh, and I can see how they might have got that. I can also see why it was replaced with celery in almost every possible way. It’s not *bad*, but it’s a harder taste to acclimatise to than celery’s bland neutrality. It would pair nicely with fennel, and yes, probably with gin, and I could see it turning up in slow-cooked casseroles. You could in fact probably use its stems as a straight swap for fennel bulbs in a number of recipes as well as celery. I hope that I’ll be able to experiment with the seeds and flowers later this year too.
I haven’t found good information about alexanders’ preferred growing conditions. From the historical descriptions I suspect it prefers alkaline and/or calcareous soils (though it’s growing fine on my acidic sandy soil), and is tolerant of some salinity and some drought. It has all the hallmarks of being a tough old plant, a survivor, and of working well as a member of a coastal food forest. I’ll see how it manages in this drylands food forest, and if it manages to set seed.