Botanical: Crithmum maritimum (LINN.)
---Synonyms---Sea Fennel. Crest Marine. Sampier.
Family: N.O. Umbelliferae
(Italian) Herba di San Pietra. Sanpetra.
Occasionally we find the name SEA FENNEL given to a plant which is far more familiar under the name of SAMPHIRE, and which also belongs to the great order of umbelliferous plants, though not to the same genus as the fennel. In German, this plant is also given a name equivalent to sea-fennel: Meerfenchel.
Prior tells us that the name of this plant is more properly zas; it was formerly spelt Sampere, or Sampier, from Saint Pierre, and Herba di San Pietra (contracted to Sanpetra) is its Italian name. It is dedicated to the fisherman saint, because it likes to grow on sea-cliffs.
The Samphire is a succulent, smooth, much-branched herb, woody at the base, growing freely on rocks on the sea-shore moistened by the salt spray.
---Description---It is well distinguished by its long, fleshy, bright-green, shining leaflets (full of aromatic juice) and umbels of tiny, yellowish-green blossoms. The whole plant is aromatic and has a powerful scent.
The young leaves, if gathered in May, sprinkled with salt (after freeing them from stalks and flowers), boiled and covered with vinegar and spice, make one of the best pickles, on account of their aromatic taste.
On those parts of the coast where Samphire does not abound, other plants which resemble it in having fleshy leaves are sometimes sold under the same name, but are very inferior.
At the present time it grows but sparingly on the white cliffs of Dover, where Shakespeare described it, but in his days it was probably more abundant there. From his description of the perilous nature of the collection of Samphire, it might be assumed that it grows where none but the adventurous can reach it, but it is to be found growing freely in the clefts of the rocks, and is in many places easily accessible from the beach, and is even sometimes to be found in the salt marshes that in some districts fringe the coast.
- Samphire gathering is referred to in King Lear:
- 'Half-way down
- Hangs one that gathers samphire; dreadful trade!'
Samphire is abundantly met with where circumstances are favourable to its growth, around the coasts of western or southern England, but is rarer in the north and seldom met with in Scotland.
The use of Samphire as a condiment and pickle, or as an ingredient in a salad is of ancient date. It used at one time to be cried in London streets as 'Crest Marine.'
Culpepper, writing some fifty years later, deplores that it had in his days much gone out of fashion, for it is well known almost to everybody that ill digestions and obstructions are the cause of most of the diseases which the frail nature of man is subject to; both of which might be remedied by a more frequent use of this herb. It is a safe herb, very pleasant to taste and stomach.
- ---Medicinal Action and Uses---In Gerard's time it was in great reputation as a condiment. He wrote in 1597:
- 'The leaves kept in pickle and eaten in sallads with oile and vinegar is a pleasant sauce for meat, wholesome for the stoppings of the liver, milt and kidnies. It is the pleasantest sauce, most familiar and best agreeing with man's body.'
In some seaside districts where Samphire is found, it is still eaten pickled by country people.