Alexanders The Great

Every time I drive into Norfolk at this time of the year I see these plants rearing up in great clumps of efflorescence on the verges as I near the coast. I first saw it crowding the dirt track that leads up to the Happisburgh lighthouse, but only tonight do I reach for my well-thumbed copy of Flora Britannica and discover they are Alexanders (Smyrnium olustratum). At first glance I thought they looked like the first sproutings of cow parsley, but of course the flower heads are far too thick, and in any case the yellowy green tops are the final colour. They are, however, in the same grouping that includes not only the parsley but pignut and coriander- the Carrot family. Richard Mabey reckons they were a Roman import, put to use 'as an all-purpose spring vegetable and tonic', but I wouldn't fancy it in a gin. You can eat the stalks- go for the green thick bits of stem and cook it like celery. Mabey also tells us that Alexanders are often found growing in the disturbed soil around monastic buildings, where it must have been put to both culinary and medicinal purpose, notably on Steepholm in the Bristol Channel. The name probably comes from 'the parsley of Alexandria', which explains its Mediterranean origins and maritime locations. Although it has been found in such diverse places as Bedfordshire and Dartmoor. So now I know, and of course will point it out to fellow travellers and go on about it as if I'd known about it all my life.

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