independent

Tuesday 20 August 2019

Alexanders - a herb dating back to Roman times

Alexanders may have been brought to Ireland by Early Christian monks.
Alexanders may have been brought to Ireland by Early Christian monks.

Jim Hurley - Nature Trail

Alexanders is in full flower along roadside verges at the moment and its presence links us across space and time to the Mediterranean and events that unfolded over 2,000 years ago.

Sixty years before Christ (BC), Britain and Ireland were outposts at the edge of the civilised world, that is, the world known to the Roman Empire. While Britain was familiar to traders as a source of tin, some early historians of the classical world wondered if such a place existed at all.

In late summer of 55 BC Julius Caesar dispatched a single warship to scout the south coast of England and to gather intelligence in preparation for the invasion planned for the spring of 54 BC. The Roman army's landing at Kent that year was to be followed by a long series of landings over several years before the 'barbarian' Britons were finally subdued.

One of the many consequences of the waves of invasions by Roman forces was that their military chefs and cooks brought with them pot plants for use in their kitchens. Alexanders, the so-called 'pot herb of Alexandria', was one of these food plants and was one of the species they introduced to Britain from their Mediterranean homelands.

All parts of the plant were eaten either raw, boiled or deep fried and were used much as we use Parsley, Celery, Asparagus and Angelica nowadays. The hard black seeds were used like black pepper and the roots were cooked like roasted Parsnips.

Roman kitchen throw-outs managed to survive on waste ground. Over time the plants became naturalised and spread throughout Britain. Being from the Mediterranean, the plant originally named after Alexander the Great thrived best in frost-free coastal areas in the milder south of the country.

Alexanders fell into disuse as a culinary herb with the passage of time, changing fashions in cookery, advances in kitchen gardening and plant breeding, and the availability of better-tasting plants.

When and how the alien Mediterranean plant colonised Ireland is unknown. Here, the plant's distribution mirrors the situation in Britain: it is most common in coastal areas along the southern and eastern shores. That said, it is well-established in many inland areas and there is no satisfactory explanation as to how it thrives in areas prone to sharp frosts.

Alexanders grows more than knee-high, smells strongly of celery, has shiny, dark green leaves and greenish-yellow flowers arranged in umbels that should continue to bloom until early June.

Wexford People

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