Crithmum maritimum (or Samphire) is an easily recognised umbellifer found on the coast. The leaves are thick and semi-succulent and hard to the touch.
What does it look like?
Waxy grey-green foliage, the stems are green to dark pinkish, flowers yellowy-green. Not tall at around 20-40cm and clump-forming in habit. It is unique in being the only succulent, yellow flowered umbellifer that grows by the sea in the UK, so if you find it you are unlikely to be mistaken. Smyrnium also has yellow flowers but in the spring, and the leaves are broad and glossy. The leaves of Crithmum are linear, 2-3 pinnate and have a distinctive central groove.
Why is it called that?
Crith is apparently from the Greek ‘krithe’ meaning barley as the seeds are superficially similar.
This name is used for more than one other plant as a descriptive term: for example: Pelargonium crithmifolium (shown below) is a pelargonium with leaves resembling those of Crithmum, rather than barley.
The specific epithet, maritimum clearly refers to its seaside habitat. The common name is more interesting, the modern spelling of samphire is a version of sampier, believed to be a contraction of St Pierre. St Peter is the patron saint of fishermen, and the understanding is that Crithmum was used to ward off scurvy. Which would be plausible, it being edible, green and handily growing on the coast. It would also explain why there is more than one green, coastal plant called samphire. Most of the other common names are variations on a theme around fennel, parsley and the coast.
From a taxonomic standpoint the jury is out. Apiaceae (the more recent family name for the umbellifers) is a family where the morphology (form and structure) does not always agree with the DNA evidence. So many groupings that appear to be related in terms of the visible evidence of the plant, turn out not to be when the evolutionary relationships of the plants are investigated. Crithmum is a monotypic genus in that it contains only one species:C. maritimum; and is currently in the sub-family Apioideae and the tribe Pyramidoptereae. Much of the work on the family to date has been centred on sorting out the higher reaches and once this is settled they will be able to sort out the genera and species that are currently a bit unclear (link to APG III site, you will need to navigate through to the Apiaceae section via Apiales on the left hand menu). At present The Plant List is unsettled on the issue of Crithmum; though the RHS list it as an accepted name in their horticultural database.
Where does it grow?
Crithmum has quite a narrow habitat in maritime environments that allow for fast drainage. As demonstrated in the picture below which was taken just east of Margate, the gaps in the concrete paving on the seafront suit it well. It also grows in the coastal defences near Seasalter which have a similar structure. It is clearly tolerant of salt spray in such conditions, though as the sea in the area is more estuarine in nature this may mitigate the worst.
The descriptions, names and ranges quoted in herbals are all so very derivative of each other (as you can see if you compare the text of the two snipped on this page) so it can hard to decide which is the original version: Gerard describes Pastinaca maritima as occurring in Westchester, this has morphed into Chester in another text not shown here; the sea-parsnip as a name is something that appears to have disappeared completely.
Gerards Herbal via Biodiversity Heritage Library click to follow source
Is it a native plant?
The Wildflower Society list it as native in their rather hard to read list. It has a range that encompasses the coast of much of the southern reaches of UK and Ireland and is known throughout the coastal Mediterranean. Crithmum was noted as being Least Concern in the Red Data List (links to pdf) for Great Britain in 2005, so it is not endangered.
Can I use it for anything?
It has long been used as a pickle in much the same way as capers, possibly this is a way of preserving it at sea for the use of sailors, but I am not sure how much vitamin c would survive long-term immersion in salted water. There are many recipes available but it is best to be aware that Salicornia europaea is also known as samphire (marsh samphire or glasswort) and is commonly eaten as well.
Trials have been made of using the dried leaves as a seasoning which sounds interesting.
It has also had fairly long tradition in use as a diuretic and appetite stimulant; Gerard describes it as ‘drie, warme and scowre’ which I take to mean it is used to counteract cold and wet humours (phlegmatic), and as a purgative of some sort.
And it is purported to have cosmetic applications as a skin lightener, regulator of pigmentation offering hydration, radiance and anti-wrinkling effects (of course).
Can I grow it?
It is possible to obtain both seed and plants, I suspect that the difficult bit will be to provide adequate growing conditions to mimic their stony home.
If you are thinking of collecting wild plant material in the UK for any purpose, please check the BSBI Code of Conduct for guidance first (pdf)
All text and images © Mercy Morris 2015 unless otherwise attributed