Sunday, 12 November 2017

Marsh samphire (Salicornia europaea)

Marsh samphire (Salicornia europaea) is an annual plant from the Chenopodiaceae family. It is also known as sea asparagus, sea pickle, sampha, sampher, samfa, samfer, sampkin, a mermaid's kiss, common glasswort or glasswort.

Marsh samphire (Salicornia europaea) stems on a plate
Marsh samphire (S. europaea) stems

Marsh samphire plants look like small cacti but without the spines and the stems look like thin asparagus spears. Found natively in coastal areas of Western Europe, it grows on salt marshes, mud flats and is commonly found in estuaries. It is at its best from June until the end of August in the British Isles. It has a short growing season but is well worth foraging for.

Growing methods

It is not absolutely necessary to go foraging for this plant since seeds and plants can now be purchased for home growing. To grow from seed sow seeds under cover in trays in the spring. Germination takes between 5 to 20 days at 25°C and may be erratic. Once they are around 2-3cm in height, seedlings may be potted on to individual pots and grown on a windowsill. If a sunny sheltered spot is available outside, preferably with free draining soil, they can be grown outside. However, protect plants from harsh winter weather.

Plants benefit from watering with salt water (1 tsp per 2 litres of water). Use sea salt not table salt which contains all manner of additives. Keep soil moist at all times. Marsh samphire grows to about 30cm high. Leave one or two plants to flower and they will self seed. Seeds mature in September.

Other uses

Marsh samphire ash was once used in the glass and soap making industries. The plant is rich in vitamins, minerals and fucoidans. It has reportedly been used to aid digestion and kidney complaints.

Raw edible parts

Marsh samphire has raw edible fleshy jointed stems. They are better when young (under 15cm in height) and become tough later on. Marsh samphire can be used as a 'cut-and-come-again' plant. The stems will regenerate after cutting.  Woody older stems can still be eaten, simply pull off the flesh with the teeth and leave the woody bit for the compost bin. As the stems age, or if they contain a lot of salt, they turn a red colour. The crunchy salty stems add flavour to salads and can be pickled. The small black seed, which is a bit small and fiddly to handle, is not edible but the oil pressed from the seed is.

To gather stems, snip with scissors and take care not to pull up the roots. This is particularly important if wild foraging. Refrigerated, stems will keep for a few days. Some say don't wash before storing and they last longer. Marsh samphire can often be found in organic box deliveries during its short season and sometimes supermarkets. However, beware the supermarket variety since they won't always use local samphire. We purchased some this year and only later realised it had been shipped in all the way from Israel!

Marsh samphire (S. europaea) is not the same as rock samphire (Crithmum maritimum), the one that Shakespeare purportedly wrote about in King Lear! The latter is much less common and is more difficult to find growing on high rocky areas. However, the stems can be used in the same way.

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