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  • Writer's pictureThe Wild Foodie

Alexanders – The Roman Parsley

Updated: Apr 26, 2023

Alexanders or Smyrnium olusatrum are also known as Horse Parsley, Black Lovage and even Wild Celery (although there is also a water loving plant also with this name!).

Alexander identification guide edible
Alexanders or Horse Parsley

Alexanders are a member of the carrot family and so related to many food crops that we love to eat including obviously the carrot, parsnip and celeriac (as well as many other well known cultivated and wild plants). Alexanders as their name suggests are long term immigrants in this country, an import by the Romans, brought from its original homeland by the Mediterranean.

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How to identify Alexanders or Horse Parsley

Alexanders or Horse Parsley can get to 3 or 4 feet tall and is easy to distinguish from other plants for many reasons. The alexanders usually grow in abundance, where there is one there is usually a huge amount of plants, on a recent fishing trip to my hometown I realised that alexanders lined the roadside for at least 2 or 3 miles, of course I had to stop and pick some!

Alexanders leaves
Alexanders leaves

This flowering plant is yellow-green in colour, it can get bushy and the leaves are glossy and toothed in groups of three at the end of each leaf stalk. The leaf stalk attaches to the main stem with a huge stem sheath that has purple to pinkish lines on it.

The stem is thicker near the base and turns again pinky purple the closer to the base that you look. Finally the flowers are bright yellow and small but held in large groups at the end of flower stalks, usually many flower stalks that all radiate from a single central point. Alexanders have an unusual smell that it quite well, alien (don’t let this put you off at all!). They smell similar to angelica. If you do now know this smell, all I can describe it as is potent with a mild whiff of fart gas (the stuff you used to get as a kid from joke shops!). This doesn’t sound attractive I know, but this smell completely passes when cooking and strangely you get to like it.

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Alexander look-alikes

Alexanders are easy to identify, but they do come with a warnings that apply to all Apiaceae (umbellifer) members: be aware that this family comprises the two species that are responsible for nearly all wild plant fatalities in the UK.

The two plants in question are hemlock and hemlock water-dropwort, neither of which nearly resembles alexanders, but both of which any forager interested in eating alexanders should be aware of.

Where to find Alexanders

Being less prone to frosts coastal areas hold most of theses unusual plants, so in order to find Alexanders, it is said that you need to be within 15 - 20 miles of the coast (or in an area that isn’t prone to frost). That being said, I have found them a long way in land. Hedge banks and roadsides seem to be the most common place to find this unusual plant. Once you know how to identify this plant, you will see it everywhere.

Alexanders along a roadside
Alexanders along a roadside

Are Alexanders Edible?

So what’s edible? The whole plant! The leaves, flowers, stalk and root are all delicious! Although it’s very difficult to find land with permission to dig up the roots!

How to cook Alexanders

The leaves can be used in salads or cooked – Roman Parsley suggests that the Romans did indeed use it as a herb for seasoning their foods. The flowers can be pickled or used in a salad and the root (if you can get permission) can be treated the same as Parsnip. The stalk is where you will find the most value! The thick stems near the bottom of the plant are best.

Make sure that when you gather them you cut the plant as close to the ground as possible.

To prepare the stalks cut sections of the thickest part removing the bamboo like dividing segments away. Peel the stringy outer layer off, similar to taking the string of off celery. Then that’s it, and you are ready to go.

Quick Steamed and Buttered Alexanders

Take your prepared stalks and steam over boiling water for 5 to 10 minutes, checking to see when they are tender. Once tender, move to a frying pan, season and add a large knob of butter, a squeeze of lemon juice and a few alexander leaves (finely chopped). Warm through and serve as a side.

You can also treat horse parsley like celery and using it as a main ingredient or as I do as a substitute to celery enriching stocks and soups with its wonderful aromatic flavour.

Alexanders also have an amazing affinity with fish so you could stuff a fish with the leaves or steam it Japanese style on the stalks.

I used Alexanders as the primary ingredient in my Alexanders with Prawns, Chilli and Spaghetti try it, it’s delicious! I also flavour Wild Pasta dough with them.

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