A couple of years ago I wrote about Alexanders, Smyrnium olusatrum, which is one of my favourite plants. But I now grow something that I think is even better, its relative Smyrnium perfoliatum (Perfoliate Alexanders). I bought my plant earlier this spring at Natural Surroundings at Bayfield, near Holt in North Norfolk.
Like Smyrnium olusatrum, Smyrnium perfoliatum is a biennial member of the Apiaceae, though it can take three, rather than two, years to complete its lifecycle. It grows a two bright green leaves in its first year, which eventually become a small loose rosette of basal leaves. Upright flowering stems follow in years two or three. These stems bear tiny, airy flowers surrounded by showy, glowing bracts, variously described as chartreuse-yellow, lime-green or green-gold.The plant grows happily in hedgebanks and under trees, even in the dry shade of Beech trees. It mixes well with other spring flowers – forget-me-nots, foxgloves, tulips, ferns or wallflowers. My plant, pictured above, looks rather good with ‘Vulcan’ wallflowers (Erysimum chieri ‘Vulcan’) and a perennial wallflower Erysimum ‘Bowles’s Mauve’. Looking at my Great Dixter photos from last spring, I see it grows there too. It is a superb choice for a wilder, less fussy sort of garden. It is also a favourite with flower arrangers, as it lacks the overpowering smell of Alexanders.
Like Alexanders, the plant will die away after flowering, leaving heads of shiny black seeds. I have only the one plant at the moment, but I am hoping it will self-seed into the narrow border by my fence.
In the wild, Alexanders (Smyrnium olusatrum) originally comes from southern and central Europe, west Turkey and Algeria, mainly by the sea, and it is naturalised around our coasts in England and southern Scotland, particularly in East Anglia. Smyrnium perfoliatum comes from southern and central Europe, west Turkey and the Crimea but grows at higher altitudes, in rocky scrub and on the edges of woods. (“Annuals and Biennials” by Roger Phillips and Martyn Rix, Pan Books 2002.)
As I only have one plant, I haven’t tried to eat Smyrnium perfoliatum but it has edible leaves and young shoots, stems, flower buds, seeds and roots. These have a celery-like flavour and, according to the Plants For A Future website, the plant is crisper and blanches better and has a less overpowering flavour than Alexanders. Leaves, stems and young shoots can be cooked in soups or stews and young shoots, flower buds and leaves can be eaten raw in salads. Roots can be cooked and the seeds are spicy and peppery.
Smyrnium perfoliatum is generally described as a gentle self-seeder – so it shouldn’t take over your garden like Alexanders can – although Dan Pearson suggests it is “a dangerous biennial if it decides it likes you“. I’ll take the risk for now…