Plant 287

Smyrnium olusatrum L. (Apiaceae)


Carrot and hemlock summarise the contrasting nature of the family Apiaceae; it contains both important food plants and deadly poisons. Some of those food plants, e.g., parsley, parsnip and celery, are well known. Others, once commonly consumed, such as alexanders, are now virtually unknown.

The native distribution of Smyrnium olusatrum borders the Mediterranean and extends into northwest France and Denmark. It was introduced to Britain and Ireland, apparently by the Romans, and is now completely naturalised in hedgerows, road and rail margins, waste places and cliffs, particularly near the sea. Inland, it is often associated with old monastic and castle sites, where it is probably a horticultural relic.

All parts of Smyrnium olusatrum are edible, and it was highly regarded as a green vegetable and root crop. The vegetative parts of the plant have the flavour of bitter, oily celery, whilst the mature fruits have a mild, peppery flavour. It was known to the Greek philosopher Theophrastus in 300 BCE. The first-century CE Roman writer Pliny the Elder wrote extensively about its culinary and medicinal properties describing it as 'antipathetic to scorpions. Its seed taken in drink cures colic and intestinal worms. The seed too, boiled and drunk in honey wine, cures dysuria [painful urination]'. Until the seventeenth century, alexanders was one of the commonest potherbs cultivated in British gardens. During the eighteenth century, alexanders lost favour, as the sweeter-tasting celery became more common, and self-blanching celery was bred.

The generic name, Smyrnium, from the Greek for myrrh, is a reference to the plant's odour. The species epithet is a combination of the Latin olus (potherb) and atrum (black), and is probably a reference to the large, black fruits.

The yellow flowers, bluntly lobed, yellow-green leaves and large black fruits of Smyrnium olusatrum mean it cannot be confused with any other member of the family Apiaceae found wild in Britain.

The small flowers of Smyrnium olusatrum produce a cloying, sweet odour and exude oils that attract many sorts of short-tongued, non-specialist insects, especially flies. Many members of the Apiaceae are andromonoecious, that is, single individuals have hermaphrodite and (functionally) male flowers, in which rudimentary styles and ovaries may still be present. The advantage of this reproductive strategy is that there is a greatly increased supply of pollen. In the case of Smyrnium olusatrum, it has been shown that for every hermaphrodite flower in an inflorescence there are four male flowers.

Further reading

Randall RE 2003. Biological Flora of the British Isles. No. 228: Smyrnium olusatrum L. Journal of Ecology 91: 325-340.

Leach HM 1982. On the origins of kitchen gardening in the Ancient Near East. Garden History 10: 1-16.

Stephen Harris