Thursday, 13 July 2017


“The sea, once it casts its spell, holds one in its net of wonder forever.” - Jacques Yves Cousteau 

Crithmum is a genus of flowering plant with the sole species Crithmum maritimum, in the Apiaceae family, known as samphire, rock samphire, or sea fennel. Rock samphire is an edible wild plant. It is found on southern and western coasts of Britain and Ireland, on Mediterranean and western coasts of Europe including the Canary Islands, North Africa and the Black Sea. “Samphire” is a name also used for several other unrelated species of coastal plant.

The name of the genus Crithmum comes from the Greek κριθη (krithe), “barley”, due to the shape of the seeds similar to those of the barley whilst the name of the species maritimum = maritime in Latin refers to its habitat. κρηθμος and κρηθμον (krethmos and krethmon) are the Greek names with which the plant was called. The common name samphire comes from “sampere”, that is “St. Pierre”, St Peter’s herb as this saint is the patron of fishermen.

In the 17th century, Shakespeare referred to the dangerous practice of collecting rock samphire from cliffs. “Half-way down, Hangs one that gathers samphire; dreadful trade!”  In the 19th century, samphire was being shipped in casks of seawater from the Isle of Wight to market in London at the end of May each year. Rock samphire used to be cried in London streets as “Crest Marine”. In England, rock samphire was cultivated in gardens, where it grows readily in a light, rich soil. Obtaining seed commercially is now difficult, and in the United Kingdom the removal of wild plants is illegal under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. The reclaimed piece of land adjoining Dover, called Samphire Hoe, is named after rock samphire. The land was created from spoil from the Channel Tunnel, and rock samphire used to be harvested from the neighbouring cliffs.

Rock samphire has fleshy, divided aromatic leaves that Culpeper described as having a “pleasant, hot and spicy taste”. The stems, leaves and seedpods may be pickled in hot, salted, spiced vinegar, or the leaves used fresh in salads. Richard Mabey gives several recipes for samphire, although it is possible that at least one of these may refer to marsh samphire or glasswort (Salicornia europaea), a very common confusion.

Samphire is quite a salt-resistant plant, but also very resistant to the drought and is one of the few Mediterranean plants blooming in full summer. Its deep roots that seek out nutrients and moisture deep in the soil, as well as its waxy, thick leaves and stems contribute to these characteristics.

It is a robust plant with irregular, ramified stems, grooved, often woody at the base, forming bushy aggregates of more than 50 cm diameter. The leaves are basal, waxy, compound, bi-tripinnatosect formed by 1-2 cm lanceolate pointed leaflets, fleshy, similar to those of a succulent plant, of glaucous-green colour with a long petiole having at the base a sheath wrapping the stem. The flowers, present from July to September, are small, of 2-4 mm, with white or yellowish, more rarely pinkish, rounded petals, carried in umbels with 10-30 rays, in their turn subdivided in umbellets surrounded by bracts. The rhizomatous root is fleshy but with tough cover, creeping for a distance of up to five metres. The oval fruits are formed by two achenes and are crossed by 10 longitudinal ribs. When ripe, in late summer, they have purple tinge.

Samphire has a rich spicy, slightly salty taste, its flavour a little akin to fennel with a touch of mint.  The fleshy young leaves can be enjoyed raw in salads, as well as chopped finely and added to aromatic sauces. The herb can also be sauteéd in butter as an accompaniment to meat courses, and it can be fried or pickled. Its high vitamin C content makes it a potent antiscorbutic.

In the language of flowers samphire foliage means “I shall sail away”, and if accompanied by flowers, expands its meaning to “will you be my bride on my return?”.

This post is part of the Floral Friday Fotos meme.

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