Samphire

Crithmum maritimum

Herbs gallery - Samphire

Common names

  • Rock Samphire
  • Sea Fennel
  • Samphire
  • True Samphire

Rock samphire is a coastal plant native to Europe. It grows on sea coasts in the United Kingdom and Ireland but also on the shores of the Mediterranean and the Black Sea. It has the distinction of being the only plant of the Crithmum genus. However, it is a part of the wider Umbelliferae or Apiceae plant families, like some other edible plants (carrot, lovage or fennel).

In the wild, it can only be found in coastal environments, growing either directly on sandy or rocky beaches or on the steep cliffs along the edge of the sea. Despite this limited range in the wild, it has proven to be very suited for cultivation in gardens. It can grow pretty much anywhere and tolerate a wide range of soils, as long as they are not too moist. It requires well-drained land and can't survive in water.

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Rock samphire is a perennial plant with vivid blue-green stems and leaves. In the wild, it actually resembles the dill plant when fully bloomed, although this rarely happens in cultivation. Stems produce flowers that can be either green or yellow and are normally cut in gardens in order to preserve the plant's attractive compact shape. The leaves are succulent and similar to the ones of purslane, although wider and larger in size.

Propagation can be done easily since the seeds grow vigorously when planted in any type of soil with good drainage. Rock samphire also propagates itself and starts growing on its own, especially in wall cracks or stony areas that are not suitable for other plants.

It has become a very popular garden plant, mainly because of its appearance. It has a unique look, with its distinctive blue-green color and strange texture of the leaves. It's even more useful because it is edible and a healthy food choice.

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Parts used

Leaves, seeds, seed pods.

Uses

Rock samphire has been known and consumed even from ancient times. Ancient Greek philosophers and scholars were already aware of its beneficial properties. Among those who mentioned it in their works are the famous botanist Pliny but also the inventor of pharmacy, the physician Dioscorides. Hippocrates considered it a key medicinal plant and praised its use as a detoxifier and diuretic. It is still used as such today.

It has continued to be mentioned by physicians in the middle Ages. Materia Medica and Herbals, a book published by John Gerard in 1597, includes rock samphire as an important condiment of the time. It was also referenced by the famous William Shakespeare.

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Despite its continued use, it is not very popular for some reason in the herbal medicine of today. It is well known to be a cure for digestive issues and especially useful to fight flatulence. Besides its nutritional qualities, with a high content of vitamin C and essential minerals, it is also a good diuretic and potentially a very good tool to decrease obesity.

The taste is bitter and very similar to karella, although rock samphire is not as bitter. It can detoxify the body, a property known from ancient times, and purify the blood.

The diuretic properties can be used in two ways. The first is to harvest the young shoots during their maximum expansion period in the spring and consume them fresh. Besides their diuretic properties, they also have digestive, carminative and depurative effects. An easy way to take advantage of the digestive benefits is to add on food a few drops of the plant's essential oil, which can be found in specialized shops.

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The plant might prove extremely useful in diets for obese people, although the exact mechanism hasn't been properly researched yet. However, it is known to be very good in a weight loss diet. The leaves also treat some types of kidney problems and reduce sluggishness.

Culinary uses

The herb was known from ancient times for its specific taste and even famed as a condiment. It can still be used as such, since the leaves provide a specific flavour when added to salads and other dishes.

Since rock samphire is a plant that grows near the sea, even named "the sea vegetable" by some authors, it can be paired best with fish or any other seafood products. It can be cooked on its own or added to other recipes.

The fresh plant is very easy to prepare. It isn't normally eaten raw but most of the cooking needed involves cutting it to the desired length. There are numerous varied and innovative ways to cook it but the easiest way it to just boil it in water or steam it. It can also be fried in butter or vegetable oil, similar to the preparation of asparagus. The fresh plant must be boiled in water for approximately 8 minutes, then dried, without adding any salt since it already has a salty taste and any addition would ruin it. For use in salads, it's enough to just boil it briefly for a minute or so, then put it in cold water.

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Most parts of rock samphire, like the stems and leaves, are delicious, succulent and can be associated with a number of other dishes. They go very well with breakfast foods like omelettes and scrambled eggs and are a very popular match for beans. Young seeds are also edible and the plant is a great addition to salads, providing both an interesting taste and a special texture.

The young plants are excellent as a pickle, when harvested during the spring. They have to be boiled first and have a good nutritional content, especially because they are rich in vitamin C. A special type of warm pickle can be prepared from the seed pods.

Rock samphire can also be frozen for storage, if you happen to have a large quantity available. It is best to boil it briefly for a minute, then dry and freeze in one layer and finally place it in special freezer bags or boxes.

Habitat and cultivation

Samphire needs the soil to be well-drained and likes sand, gravel and rocky areas unsuited for other plants. It can grow even in cracks in the asphalt, between rocks or along falls with a south-east orientation.

It can be cultivated in normal gardens but it's not easy to do it successfully because it requires conditions close to the ones in its native habitat. Garden cultivation is not hard in coastal areas with a saline environment. For best results, it needs well-drained salty soils or even dry poor soils without competition from other species. The plant likes warm locations and sun but it should be sheltered from extreme temperatures and the strongest midday sunlight. In gardens, it should be planted in a sheltered position and protected from frost.

Propagation is easily done by seeds, which are best collected in the autumn when they become fully ripe. Seeds are very prolific but, according to some information, they don't last long and must be planted immediately. For best results, plant the seeds during a cold patch, with minimal coverage.

The seedling emerge in 3 to 6 weeks and should be moved to separate small pots, then planted in the garden in the next spring, when division is also possible.

Collection and harvesting

The plant has a generous harvesting season, starting at the end of April and lasting until the end of autumn in October or even November. Gathering rock samphire is very easy, all you need is to cut it with a pair of scissors.

The best harvesting period is during the spring and summer, when usually the entire plant is fresh and can be consumed. It can also be done later in the autumn but be careful to avoid mature parts, which become thick and woody, and harvest only the younger shoots.

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