Dear Readers, I love it when I find a ‘weed’ that I’ve been looking out for for a while, especially when it pops up in the most unlikely of places. Alexanders, a member of the carrot family, was growing in profusion all over some fly-tipped crates on the edge of Muswell Hill Playing Fields. I have never seen it before, and so I was delighted to make its acquaintance, even on this most unpromising of sites. When it gets going, it has big, blousey roundels of yellow-green flowers, and the glossy green leaves are most attractive.
Alexanders is said to be native to Macedonia, birthplace of Alexander the Great, and there is a legend that he discovered it. I have always been intrigued by the tales of Alexander, in particular the part where he tames his horse, Bucephalus, by understanding that it is afraid of its shadow. When I contracted chicken pox a few years ago (and a right bundle of laughs that is) I got through by reading a young adult novel called ‘I am the Great Horse’ by Katherine Roberts, which is a thumping good read, though I am not altogether sure about its historical accuracy. And then there is also the 2004 film ‘Alexander’, featuring Colin Farrell in a blond wig so terrible that I’m surprised he didn’t sue.
But to return to the plant. Alexanders does have classical origins in the UK, having been brought here by the Romans, who called it parsley of Alexandria, and are reputed to have carried it with them as a tasty snack on their long marches. I have also read that the Romans used it to feed their horses, hence the alternative name of ‘horse parsley’. It was was quickly identified as a useful medicinal herb, and was planted extensively in monastery gardens: it can often be found in the ruins of abbeys and castles. Whether there was once a monastery abutting the playing fields remains to be seen. It is also a plant of the shoreline, and it can be badly damaged by frost, hence its preference for warmer areas.
Alexanders was largely used as a medicinal herb, for staunching blood flow and treating sores. Strangely enough, it was used to stimulate menstrual bleeding. It is high in vitamin C, and was used as a preventative against scurvy long before people knew that the disease was caused by not enough fruit and vegetables – sailors off the coast of Wales used to disembark to collect Alexanders for just this purpose.
The carrot family as a whole has a Jekyll and Hyde character: some of our most useful and delicious vegetables are here (carrots, celery, parsnips, angelica, caraway) but so are some of the most poisonous plants in the UK, such as hemlock. Fortunately, Alexanders is one of the former: the leaves, upper parts of the roots and the flowers were all eaten until celery came along and took over. In Ireland, the plant was used, along with nettles and watercress, as part of ‘Lenten pottage’, a gruel made during Lent. There are some rather nice recipes on the Eden Project website here. And, though I’m not sure that my Dad would have approved (he liked his gin to be Gordon’s and if anyone was going to mess about with it, it was going to be him), there is a rather fine blog post about making gin flavoured with Alexanders here.
The Latin name Smyrnium refers to the plant’s myrrh-like odour. Sadly I have no earthly idea what myrrh smells like, but apparently the musky smell of the flowers helps to attract pollinating insects, particularly hoverflies, those underappreciated little creators of new life. The smaller flies are often spotted on the flowers of the carrot family, and there is a lovely collection of species here. I wonder if Alexanders might be particularly attractive because of its yellow colour, however? There is one study on a very common hoverfly, the drone fly (Eristalis tenax), which shows a clear preference for golden flowers, and I have noticed that my marsh marigolds are largely ignored by bees, but are very popular with flies.
What an interesting fly the drone fly is! For one thing, the males hold a territory for their whole lives, and will attack not only other male flies but bees, butterflies and even dragonflies (though that would probably make for a shortish lifespan). This is exhausting for the male, and when he can he zips off to an area outside his territory (and presumably not part of anyone else’s ‘manor’) for a rest. The black line down the body of the fly is right above a very important blood vessel, and as black is a colour that absorbs heat, it helps the insect to get going in the morning. Furthermore, this little chap is pretty much universal, on every continent except Antarctica, and has even been found in the Himalayas, so you’ll all know what he (or she) looks like. In fact, the male and female look different, so here are some photos for comparison.
So, Alexanders is not only medicinal and tasty, but it provides food for hoverflies too. Now that I’ve found it once, I wonder if it will crop up everywhere? And what other ‘common’ weeds will I find that I’ve not seen yet? Pellitory-of-the-wall is supposed to be a London specialist, but not around here (though if you’re an East Finchleyite and have a secret patch of it, let me know!). In the meantime, I shall be keeping a very close eye on our unweeded gardens and roads to see what I can see. While we don’t yet have deer in our gardens or wild goats munching the wallflowers, we do have rather a lot of sow thistle.
Photo One from https://historycollection.co/history-film-historical-accuracy-8-classic-movies/8/
Photo Two by By Charles J Sharp – Own work, from Sharp Photography, sharpphotography, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=51349218
Photo Three by By Alvesgaspar – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3211670
Beautifully written and very interesting. I recently hauled out my book of common weeds in South Africa to identify a plant in my garden, Even though the book is aimed at farmers and contains only pen-an-ink sketches, I have been fascinated by the information available. We have a (as yet unidentified by me) plant with carrot-like leaves and a strong carrot aroma when you crush the leaves … you inspire me to investigate further.
Just don’t taste it until you’re sure Anne 🙂
Competing with sow thistle for dominant weed in EF is green alkanet, the bane of my life. It’s invasive and so BIG but pollinators love its flowers so I hold back from tackling it. There seem to be a lot of hoverflies at the moment, maybe due to the warm dry weather? Re the drone fly photos, is a male one missing?
Hi Ann, you might be interested in my blogpost tomorrow 🙂 And thanks for the heads up re the drone flies – the top one is a female, the other one’s a male (I’d mislabelled them)
Here in West Cornwall, Alexanders is everywhere at this time of year – on cliffs, in sand dunes, and as part of the multi-coloured floral mix in traditional Cornish stone hedges, along with bluebells, wild garlic, red campions, greater stitchwort and many other species. It’s not a very welcome visitor to my garden, as it spreads very quickly indeed!
Absolutely wonderful, you explore so many aspects. If you go into a Catholic Church when a Mass is being celebrated (or better still in the cathedral at Santiago de Compostela when the great thurible goes from side to side above the altar) the incense used is frankincense and myrrh. An agreeable spicy eastern odour, but hard to tell which is which.
Thanks Gert! Glad you enjoyed the blog, and I remember the smell in the Duomo in Milan, the biggest Gothic church in Europe, which was lit entirely by candles when I was there and had that extraordinary spicy smell…
You have solved one thing for me – I’ve been watching a small not-particularly-bee-like insect in our yarden lunchtimes since lockdown. It tends to spend a fair amount of time resting on my plants.
From your excellent photos I now know it’s a male Drone Fly.
As I’ve not noticed it ‘patrolling’, it seems to come here to rest, them bomb off elsewhere to its territory.
Isn’t it lovely to be able to put a name to the creatures that visit, and to find out a bit more about them? It’s an endless source of fascination for me…
I’ve only found this in one place locally so far and that’s at our local Priory and castle – it grows all over the grounds.