Just how complicated can a simple* be?
Walking last weekend with my daughter in the salt marshes of the Cuckmere valley we saw brilliant patches of red amongst the grasses and reeds bordering the rivers and pools. We were intrigued to know what it was – I managed to get close enough to pick a small sprig, and saw that it was some sort of samphire-like plant, but instead of the usual grassy-green it was coloured dark red/purple.
I was puzzled – mostly by the colour, and partly by the ease of access: my only real knowledge of the habitat of Samphire coming from Shakespeare:
“How fearful And dizzy ’tis to cast one’s eyes so low!
The crows and choughs that wing the midway air
Show scarce so gross as beetles: half-way down
Hangs one that gathers Samphire: dreadful trade!
Methinks he seems no bigger than his head.”
It didn’t take a lot of research to find that my confusion is not uncommon: the true Samphire is a single species genus, Crithmum maritimum of the Umbillifer family (the same family as Parsley and Carrot): the plant we saw was a Glasswort, Salicornia, a somewhat confusing and jumbled genus of the Goosefoot and Orach family, which includes other edibles such as Purslane and Fat Hen. Which Glasswort it was is unsure – my Collins Flower Guide lists them as
‘extremely variable and difficult to identify as the distinction between the species is not clear’.
A somewhat older source, Herbal Simples Approved for Modern Uses of Cure, by William Thomas Fernie, 1897, gives the following guidance
“Samphire, of the true sort, is a herb difficult to be gathered, because it grows only out of the crevices of lofty perpendicular rocks which cannot be easily scaled. This genuine Samphire (Crithmum maritimum) is a small plant, bearing yellow flowers in circular umbels on the tops of the stalks, which flowers are followed by seeds like those of the Fennel, but larger…A spurious Samphire, the Inula crithmoides, or Golden Samphire, is often supplied in lieu of the real plant, though it has a different flavor, and few of the proper virtues. This grows more abundantly on low rocks, and on ground washed by salt water. Also a Salicornia, or jointed Glasswort, or Saltwort, or Crabgrass, is sold as Samphire for a pickle, in the Italian oil shops.”
My conclusion – what we saw was probably Purple Glasswort (Salicornia ramosissima), but may have been Common Glasswort, also known as Marsh Samphire, (Salicornia eueopea) in it’s reddened autumn state.
Whether or not what we saw is one of the edible and delicious samphires (as opposed to those rich in saponins, which can be toxic) is another matter altogether. As William Thomas Fernie says in the introduction to his Herbal Simples:
“The Primitive Simplers presented here show the way of life in other generations, it is not suggested or recommended trying them yourself”.
I’ll admire the plants in the salt marsh and buy my edible samphire from the fish monger.
* simple, being the old word for a medicinal herb, as in ‘Simple Simon to the Pie Man’ – not a stupid Simon, but a boy selling herbs.