One plant that is simply impossible to ignore round here in the spring are Alexanders, Smyrnium olusatrum. It bursts forth, all shiny lime-green exuberance along the roadsides, any waste ground, and basically everywhere like sturdy cow parsley on steroids.
Last spring we had quite a bit of it in the cliff-side margins of the field – I think ideally it likes a bit of shade but its prepared to do without if that is what it takes. This year we appear to have absolutely loads of the stuff and bizarrely its coming up already, in accordance with all the other weird sprouting and flowerings that have been going on this mild winter. My mother is currently in hospital in Slough and, coming into Slough from the M4, there are two enormous carpets of municipally planted daffodils that have been in full sunshine-yellow bloom since the beginning of December.
Last spring we read our foraging books and found out that Alexanders were thought to have been brought to this country by the Romans who used it as a food source. It is a odd marriage between celery and parsley and young stems can be boiled or steamed for 5 to 10 minutes and eaten as a vegetable. Also the roots were commonly eaten. We snipped some fresh young leaves and they were very credible as a salad food. Also, the young flower buds can be pickled like miniature cauliflowers which is something I plan to try in the spring.
I found a recipe for grilled squid with sweet and sour Alexanders which sounds interesting and adventurous and I understand from my reading that Alexanders vodka is apparently delicious and not to be missed.
The plant is a native of the Mediterranean and, having been introduced to this country 2,000 years ago, it grows here mainly in coastal regions as a biennial.
But all is not well with our Alexanders:
All the Alexanders down by the cliff line are heavily affected by these white things on the underside of the leaves and on the stems. The lesser quantity of Alexanders growing on the landward margin of the meadows are much less infested.
The upper side of the leaves have sort of burn marks where there is a white pod beneath.
We have no idea, of course, what this is, whether it is fungus, virus or eggs but there there sure as heck is an awful lot of it. It looks like eggs to me but what would have laid eggs in such enormous quantities?
I found a scientific article on Alexanders in the April 2003 Journal of Ecology which suggests various moths that lay eggs on Alexanders: Agonopterix heracliana (but apparently this micro moth lays its eggs and then the leaves roll into tubes around the egg sac – not what has happened here), Philedonides lunana (Walkers Lanark tortrix. A species of moorlands and heathlands in the Midlands and northwards – so not likely here in Kent) and Aethes beatricella (Hemlock yellow conch which flies June and July in the south-east of England. However, the article suggested that this moth’s larvae feed on the Alexander during the autumn and then bore holes into the stem to hibernate. Again, this is not what has happened here, and also I don’t understand this since the Alexanders die back completely over winter and there is no stem to hibernate in).
Having drawn a blank, we are going to keep an eye on the Alexanders and see what happens next if that gives us a clue as to what on earth is going on. In addition, I will post a few photos onto a website I have used in the past called ispotnature.org (‘a friendly and free community helping to identify wildlife and share nature’) because there seem to be some extremely knowledgeable people who visit there to help out beginners like me.
ispotnature.org has not let me down and, having posted photos, I very rapidly got informed that this is Alexanders Rust, Puccinia smyrnii, a parasitic fungus that affects just these plants. I have tried to search the internet to find out some more about this fungus but, other than discovering that a man called Alexander Rust wrote a book entitled ‘Double taxation within the European Union’, I am none the wiser.