The history of samphire dates from antiquity. In ancient Greece, famous doctors such as Dioscorides, the ‘father’ of pharmacology, and the famous volcanologist Plinius, refer to the plant and its precious properties. The samphire was highly appreciated because it contains many nutrients, like iodine, vitamins E, C, K, and minerals.
It also contains high-quality antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids and it is used in the pharmaceutical industry as a diuretic and a blood cleaner, while it is beneficial to the liver. The samphire’s extract and essential oil are also used in cosmetology. Samphire has a variety of properties and applications on cosmetics.
What it is: The ‘marmite’ of sea veg – rock samphire literally grows on rocks along the coast and people tend to either praise its virtues to the hilt or dismiss it as a good-for-nothing weed.
It’s harvested during the summer months, from May to September in England, Jersey, the Isle of Wight, Galloway and South Ayrshire. It also grows further afield in the Mediterranean, along the Atlantic coast of Europe and around the Black Sea.
Rock samphire blooms in little white-yellow flowers and although it does occasionally grow on the foreshore, it usually clings to coastal cliffs, sea defenses, and rocky outcrops, sometimes extending onto shingle foreshore.
It looks similar to marsh samphire, but it’s botanically unrelated, even though it sometimes shares the same habitat. Rock samphire is often confused with the marsh type and they can be harvested together, adding to the confusion.
Latin name: Crithmum maritimum.
Also known as: Sea fennel, sea asparagus, sea bean, sea pickle or crest marine.
Appearance: Belonging to the umbelliferae or apiaceae family of plants, which includes fennel, carrots and lovage, rock samphire looks a bit like carrot tops thanks to its straggly growth of antler-like, succulent fronds. Similar to marsh samphire, it is like mini-cacti but rich in aromatic oils.
A small shrubby perennial plant that grows to one foot tall, rock samphire has flat heads of yellow-green flowers and fleshy, long, divided leaves that give off a strong aroma when crushed.
Taste: Rock samphire has the same saltiness and crunch of marsh samphire but with an intense and aromatic carrot or parsley taste. The plant has a warm, aromatic and somewhat sulfurous taste.
Harvesting: Because of the perilous places where it grows, foraging rock samphire can be dangerous, and therefore foragers for restaurants can charge a high price. The parts collected are the fleshy leaves and stems, which are the fresh young growth. The older bits are stringy or woody. This specific strain can’t be commercialized – it has to be hand-picked, hand-washed and you can't grow it inland. It needs salt air and to be splashed by the sea to acquire its flavour.
How it’s eaten: It’s eaten both raw and cooked, and can be preserved in brine. When bruised or broken, the leaves have a distinct, but pleasant aroma, of lemon oil. The raw leaves have a strong carroty taste and are great in salads.
Rock samphire seed pods can be found from August to October and can be pickled and used as a substitute for capers. The rock samphire flowers, which bloom from June to August, can be eaten but are usually a sign that the plant is past its best.
Nutrition: With similar properties to karalla, rock samphire can reduce flatulence, purify the blood, and remove toxins from the body. It is thought to be good for a weight-loss diet and obesity. It has 30 times the vitamin C content of an orange.