Crithmum : Greek: krithe - barley; refers to the ribbed, ovate seeds • maritimum : maritimus - the sea, maritime, coastal area
rock samphire, sea fennel, crithmus, sampere, camphire, Peter's cress
• Català (Catalan): fenoll marí, fonoll marí
• Español: hinojo marino, finocchio marino, cresta maritima, perejil de mar, perejil de la isla (Cádiz)
• Française: fenouil marin, fenouil de mer, bacile, cassepierre, creste marine, criste marine, perce pierre, perce pierre maritime
• Italiano: bürcio, bacicci, bacidè, baciglia, baciucchio, baciucco, basciggia, basiggi, bassiga, crètamo, crètino, crista marina, crìtamo marittimo, crite, critmo, erba de marina, erba de S. Piè, erba de Santu Perdu, erba di lu pitittu, erba di San Pietro, erba sascio, fenôggio maèn, fenugiu mên, fenugiu marin, fenugu de mari, fenugu maritimu, fenuju de mare, ferruggiu mên, ferruggiu marin, finocchio marino di scoglio, finocchiu marinu, frangisasso, granfa di quaglia, herhachi San Pietra, paccasassi, spaccasassi
• Português: funcho marítimo, marinho, perrexil-do-mar, fiuncho do mar, prixel do mar
• Türk (Turkish): deniz rezenesinin, deniz teresi, kaya koruğu
• Ελληνική (Greek): κράμο, κρίταμο, κρίθμον το παράλιον, κρίθαμο
العربية (Arabic): شمرة بحرية
עברית (Hebrew): קריתמון ימי
native to Mediterranean coastal cliffs and bluffs as well as those of the Black Sea, the Atlantic coast of Northern Europe including England, Wales, & Ireland.
With a wide distribution in coastal regions of Southern & Northern Europe, this monotypic species has a long history in many different cultures. Perennial stems from a central thick root bear alternate blue-green, pinnate leaves whose leaflets are generally held vertically. These stems ultimately terminate in a compound-umbel of greenish to cream flowers, ripening to large, rounded seeds. The leaves, stems, and seeds are rich in vitamin C, so it is no surprise that this plant was used to guard against scurvy by sailing folk, especially as it grows conveniently adjacent to the sea. This author finds it eminently plausible that mariners might have assisted in the distribution of this useful plant before recorded history.
The genus name is thought by some to be derived from the Greek κριθή - barley, because the seeds are considered to resemble that grain. If true, the derivation is very old as this plant was called κρίθμον or κρῆθμον (kríthmon or krêthmon) by famous ancient herbalist Pedanius Dioscorides (circa 40-90 AD).
Regarding the common name of 'samphire', the Rev. Prof. G. Henslow (below) gives his own etymological idea, though most consider that this name is a corruption of the French 'S. Pierre,' St. Peter being the patron saint of fishermen and this herb having been used as a dietary addition on sea voyages that protected the seamen (from scurvy - see below). The tender new shoots have a salty-aromatic flavour and have been used as a flavouring for salads since antiquity, or pickled to be eaten later, which no doubt accounts for other common name variations on 'cress' and 'fennel.'
This 'samphire' is not to be confused with Inula crithmoides L. (Asteraceae) or species from Salicornia and Halosarcia (both of the Amaranthaceae), all of which have been known under the same or similar common names and are occasionally used as an edible in a similar manner to Crithmum (either intentionally or as an adulterant when the other is unavilable).
This strongly aromatic plant is now known to be a rich in vitamin C, essential oils, trace elements and minerals, so it is no surprize that sailors since antiquity valued the pickled product to suppliment their diets on sea journeys. Documented as a diuretic and antibacterial, the resinous essential oil is even considered an aphrodisiac! Innovative chefs around the world have started to experiment with this ancient food plant, adding its unusual flavors to salads or appetizers. Samphire has a diuretic effect, is a toxin cleanser, and improves digestion.
Though this species is seldom found far from the sea and usually growing on steep cliffs or sandy beaches, it is very adaptable to cultivation and a variety of soils, as long as they are allowed to dry out and there is no standing water. Stems which have flowered should be cut back hard or to the base, in order to keep the plant handsomely compact. Seeds are easy to sprout in any fast draining mix and are fond of self-seeding themselves into masonry cracks or stones. The handsome, succulent, blue-green foliage have an unusual texture and constrast nicely with many plants. And the added bonus of edibility makes it all the more worthwhile to grow.
Seán A. O'Hara
Richard Briggs' pickle recipe from 1794 (see References below)
(note the retention of the long s (ſ) which was still used at the time of this publication)
Take the ſamphire that is green, lay it in a clean pan, throw two or three handful of ſalt over it, and then cover with ſpring water ; let it lay twenty-four hours ; then put it into a braſs ſauce-pan, throw in a handful of ſalt, and cover it with good vinegar ; cover the pan cloſe, ſet it over a very ſlow fire, and let it ſtand till it is juſt green and criſp ; then take it off a moment, (for if it ſtands till it is ſoft it is ſpoiled) put it in your pickling-pot and cover it cloſe ; when it is cold tie it down with a bladder and leather, and keep it for uſe. You may keep it all year in a very ſtrong brine of ſalt and water, and throw it into vinegar juſt before you uſe it.
Rev. Prof. G. Henslow, M.A., F.L.S., F.R.H.S., V.M.H., ETC. - Royal Horticultural Society, London, 1912
The Origin and History of our Garden Vegetables
The samphire (Crithmum maritimum, L.) on the rocks round our coasts was known to the Greeks as Krithmon or Krithamon and as Crithmum to the Romans. The English name is derived from St. Pierre i.e. St. Peter's herb. This was corrupted into 'sampier' (sixteenth century); thence into 'samphire.' It was probably so called from growing on rocks, petra being the Greek for rock and petros a stone. Turner, an early writer of the sixteenth century, says it was first used as medicine 'sodden in wine,' then 'both raw and sodden and eaten as a worte or a common rnete herb, that is eaten in sallet or otherwise. It is kept in bryne.'
Other herbalists of the same century repeat the above uses. The marsh samphire (Salicornia herbacea) of our salt-marshes is sometimes substituted for the true samphire, but it is much inferior. Its main use was for making barilla, an impure carbonate of soda, obtained by burning the dried plant.
Rock samphire can be identified by its warm but slightly sulphurous scent. The plant flowers between June and Spetember but the plant is at is best [harvested] before it flowers and ideally should be picked betweeen the spring and early summer. Indeed, this is one of the springtime traeats for the wild food forager and the young leaves, if gathered in May, sprinkled with salt (after freeing them from stalks and flowers) to extract excess bitterness, boiled, and covered with vinegar and spice, make one of the best pickles, on account of their aromatic taste. The use of Samphire as a condiment and pickle, or as an ingredient in a salad is of ancient date.