Crithmum maritimum

Crithmum maritimum

Crithmum maritimum (or Samphire) is an easily recognised umbellifer found on the coast. The leaves are thick and semi-succulent and hard to the touch.

from Gerard’s Herbal via Biodiversity Heritage Library click to follow source

What does it look like?
Waxy grey-green foliage, the stems are green to dark pinkish, flowers yellowy-green. Not tall at around 20-40cm and clump-forming in habit. It is unique in being the only succulent, yellow flowered umbellifer that grows by the sea in the UK, so if you find it you are unlikely to be mistaken. Smyrnium also has yellow flowers but in the spring, and the leaves are broad and glossy. The leaves of Crithmum are linear, 2-3 pinnate and have a distinctive central groove.

crithmum pot
Crithmum maritimum
The British Herbal
The British herbal :an history of plants and trees, natives Britain, cultivated for use, or raised for beauty.  John Hill, M.D. Click to follow link

Why is it called that?
Crith is apparently from the Greek ‘krithe’ meaning barley as the seeds  are superficially similar.

Crithmum maritimum MHNT. BOT. 2008. 1.12″ by Roger Culos – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons Click image for full source info.

This name is used for more than one other plant as a descriptive term: for example: Pelargonium crithmifolium (shown below) is a pelargonium with leaves resembling those of Crithmum, rather than barley.

By James Steakley (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0} Click image for full source info.
The specific epithet, maritimum clearly refers to its seaside habitat. The common name is more interesting, the modern spelling of samphire is a version of sampier, believed to be a contraction of St Pierre. St Peter is the patron saint of fishermen, and the understanding is that Crithmum was used to ward off scurvy. Which would be plausible, it being edible, green and handily growing on the coast. It would also explain why there is more than one green, coastal plant called samphire. Most of the other common names are variations on a theme around fennel, parsley and the coast.

Adam in Eden snipped
Adam in Eden, or, Natures paradise : – Biodiversity Heritage Library Click to follow link

From a taxonomic standpoint the jury is out. Apiaceae (the more recent family name for the umbellifers) is a family where the morphology (form and structure) does not always agree with the DNA evidence. So many groupings that appear to be related in terms of the visible evidence of the plant, turn out not to be when the evolutionary relationships of the plants are investigated. Crithmum is a monotypic genus in that it contains only one species:C. maritimum; and is currently in the sub-family Apioideae and the tribe Pyramidoptereae. Much of the work on the family to date has been centred on sorting out the higher reaches and once this is settled they will be able to sort out the genera and species that are currently a bit unclear (link to APG III site, you will need to navigate through to the Apiaceae section via Apiales on the left hand menu). At present The Plant List is unsettled on the issue of Crithmum; though the RHS list it as an accepted name in their horticultural database.

Where does it grow?
Crithmum has quite a narrow habitat in maritime environments that allow for fast drainage. As demonstrated in the picture below which was taken just east of Margate, the gaps in the concrete paving on the seafront suit it well. It also grows in the coastal defences near Seasalter which have a similar structure. It is clearly tolerant of salt spray in such conditions, though as the sea in the area is more estuarine in nature this may mitigate the worst.

Crithmum on the coastal defences east of Margate

The descriptions, names and ranges quoted in herbals are all so very derivative of each other (as you can see if you compare the text of the two snipped on this page) so it can hard to decide which is the original version: Gerard describes Pastinaca maritima as occurring in Westchester, this has morphed into Chester in another text not shown here; the sea-parsnip as a name is something that appears to have disappeared completely.

gerarde 3
Gerards Herbal via Biodiversity Heritage Library click to follow source

adamAdam in Eden, or, Natures paradise : – Biodiversity Heritage Library Click to follow link

Is it a native plant?
The Wildflower Society list it as native in their rather hard to read list. It has a range that encompasses the coast of much of the southern reaches of UK and Ireland and is known throughout the coastal Mediterranean. Crithmum was noted as being Least Concern in the Red Data List (links to pdf) for Great Britain in 2005, so it is not endangered.

Can I use it for anything?
It has long been used as a pickle in much the same way as capers, possibly this is a way of preserving it at sea for the use of sailors, but I am not sure how much vitamin c would survive long-term immersion in salted water. There are many recipes available but it is best to be aware that Salicornia europaea  is also known as samphire (marsh samphire or glasswort) and is commonly eaten as well.
Trials have been made of using the dried leaves as a seasoning which sounds interesting.
It has also had fairly long tradition in use as a diuretic and appetite stimulant; Gerard describes it as ‘drie, warme and scowre’ which I take to mean it is used to counteract cold and wet humours (phlegmatic), and as a purgative of some sort.

And it is purported to have cosmetic applications as a skin lightener, regulator of pigmentation offering hydration, radiance and anti-wrinkling effects (of course).

Can I grow it?
It is possible to obtain both seed and plants, I suspect that the difficult bit will be to provide adequate growing conditions to mimic their stony home.

If you are thinking of collecting wild plant material in the UK for any purpose, please check the BSBI Code of Conduct for guidance first (pdf)

All text and images © Mercy Morris 2015 unless otherwise attributed


Peucedanum officinale

Peucedanum officinale (or Hog’s Fennel) is a large, conspicuous, herbaceous umbellifer. An umbellifer is a plant in the family Apiaceae where the flowers are arranged in umbels which helpfully resemble the spokes of an umbrella.
It first becomes obvious to the passer-by in March-April, flowers in July-August and seeds from September onwards. It is difficult to mistake for anything else, you see it and think ‘What on earth is that?’ or something a wee bit more colloquial.

IMG_20150531_135030Peucedanum officinale looking conspicuously different in the spring. (Tankerton Slopes, Whitstable)

What does it look like?

I think it looks like a frothy green sea anemone.  It is a substantial plant, up to 2m tall when in flower, and creates a dumpy mound of fine foliage topped with yellow-green umbels of tiny flowers. The plants have a distinctive resiny, incense smell that carries quite a distance on the wind. This is very helpful if you are a local teenager trying to surreptitiously smoke grass in the area, as the scents are very similar.  Superficial resemblance to culinary fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) is dispelled close to, the plants are a different order of size and robustness (and smell). The leaves of Peucedanum are finely divided, but not as fine as fennel, they feel tougher than they look, and are not scented when crushed. The stems are smooth and solid, and the rootstock is apparently large and parsnip-like, but I have never dug one up to investigate.

Peucedanum flowers demonstrating both their form and their attractiveness to insects

(click image for attribution)

Why is it called that?

The name probably comes from the Ancient Greek ‘peukadanos’ which probably means pine (peuka) and ‘dry, parched, or burnt’ (danos); although W J Hooker opts for ‘gift’ or ‘dwarf’  in different editions of The British Flora. But it is not immediately apparent, apart from the needle-thin foliage, why this would be so. It has a bundle of common names: hog’s fennel, sow’s fennel, sulphur weed, sea hog’s fennel, brimstonewort, sulphurwort, and hoarstrong or hoarstrange (probably from the German common name Haarstrang).


Peucedanum on the eastern side of Reculver, Kent.

Where does it grow?

Only in a few places in England (Faversham to Reculver, along the Kent coast; Essex and Suffolk) making it Nationally Rare. It has been suggested Ray recorded it in Shoreham, West Sussex in 1666, but it is possibly a case of misidentification, because it has not been found there for at least 300 hundred years. In Europe it is more common, and less restricted to the coast – growing in grassland up 1800m in western Siberia.

Is it a native plant?

The distribution near the coast, especially near Roman ports suggests that it may have been brought in by the Romans; though BSBI list it as a native.

Can I use it for anything?

Unless you have hogs to feed, or are an endangered moth  it is not currently used for much. It has potential,  and has been used for various remedial purposes in the past.

The_Herball_Or_Generall_Historie_of_Plantes__Very_Much_Enlarged_and_Amended_by_Thomas_Johnson_Citizen_and_Apothecarye_of_London_-_Google_PlayFrom Gerard’s second book of the Historie of Plants. (click image to view)

There is a sample of the root tucked away in the Museum of Economic Botany at Kew, Herbarium specimens of the plant can be admired via JStor Global Plants (sadly you need a log-in to fully appreciate their glory) or the Linnean Society (free to view).

Can I grow it?

It does appear to be possible to get hold of the seed commercially in Europe. It should be sown in the autumn and allowed to sit outside in the winter, it should then germinate in the spring. As long as the seedlings are kept relatively free of competition they should grow on well.

If you are thinking of collecting wild plant material in the UK for any purpose, please check the BSBI Code of Conduct for Guidance first

All text and images © Mercy Morris 2015 unless otherwise attributed