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in ancient Rome

Alexanders, Smyrnium holusatrum L.(1) or Smyrnium olusatrum L.(2), called hipposelinon (parsley or "horse celery") by the Greeks, it is often compared to celery, which was also known in antiquity but considered to be an inedible plant of ill omen, used in funeral ceremonies.(3) Its generic name, Smyrniom, is derived from the myrrh-like smell and flavour of the plant, expecially the leaves.(4)

Described in the works of Theophrastus, Dioscorides and Pliny(5), to name but a few, for many centuries Alexanders has been one of the commonest garden plants. Probably gathered before Neolithic times, and already grown as early as the Iron Age, it became very popular during the time of Alexander the Great and was widely grown by the Romans, who introduced it to western and central Europe, including Britian.(6)

Refered to by Columela as "myrrh of Achaea" because of its myrrh-like smell and flavour and its association with Greece, which the Romans called Achaica or Achaea, it was used a a condiment, in a way similar to parsley, in soups, stews, and sauces accompanying meat and fish. It was most commonly used as a fresh vegetable, the leaves, young shoots and leaf stalks being prefered (olusatrum is Latin for "black vegetable") The roots were preserved in a sweet-and-sour pickle and the fruit contains cuminal, an essential oil reminiscent of cumin.(7)

Of the cultivation and methods of consumption Columela writes: "alexanders must be grown from seed in ground dug out with a pastino, particularly close to walls because it likes shade and thrives on any kind of ground: so once you have sown it, if you do not uproot it fully but leave its stems for seed instead, it lasts forever and requires only light hoeing. It is sown from the feast day of Vulcan (August) until the calends of September, but also in January...". "Before alexanders puts out stems, pull up its root in January or February and, after shaking it gently to remove any soil, place it in vinegar and salt; after 30 days, take it out and peel off its skin; otherwise, place its chopped pith into a new glass container or jar and add juice to it as described below. Take some mint, raisins and a small dry onion and grind them together with toasted wheat and a little honey; when all this is well ground, mix with it two parts of syrup and one of vinegar and put it like this into the aforementioned jar and, after covering it with a lid, place a skin over it; later, when you wish to use it, remove the pieces of root with their own juice and add oil to them." (8)

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footnotes & bibliography

(1) Miller, J. Innes; The Spice Trade of the Roman Empire; Oxford; 1969; p 112

(2) Neglected Horticultural Crops: Alexanders

(3) Ibid.

(4) Ibid.

(5) Miller; p 112

(6) Ibid.

(7) Ibid.

(8) as quoted in Neglected Horticultural Crops: Alexanders