Alexanders are an edible wild plant that you can find growing from February to June. Pick the tender young stems and steam them for a unique flavour experience. They taste like a combination of asparagus, celery, and elderflower
In early spring Alexanders are the biggest and boldest plants in hedgerows across Britain. If you’re looking for them and they grow in your area then you really can’t miss them. They grow up to three feet tall and spread outwards with their thick stems and green leaves. Each stem is topped by an umbel of yellow-green flowers that attract insects and bees from far and wide.
Most people will drive by alexanders and see them as just another unnamed plant. However, you’re here because you’re interested in the wild food that grows all around you. They’re fairly easy to ID and so relatively safe for a newbie forager to try. As for their flavour, the young stems are tender, have a texture similar to asparagus, and taste like floral-celery.
Alexanders were brought by the Romans
Interestingly, alexanders are a type of ancient cultivated food that the Romans brought to Britain. The same goes for ground elder, a notorious weed, and more conventional vegetables and herbs such as radishes, cabbage, rosemary, mint, and coriander (cilantro). The story goes that after the Romans left, alexanders were grown in monasteries and eventually established themselves in the wild. The practice of growing them as a garden vegetable died out ages ago. However, you will often find Alexanders growing at old churches and the ruins of former monastic sites.
Considering this, I was delighted to find them growing outside Old Ballaugh Church here on the Isle of Man. I suspect that it’s taken up residence as a wild plant rather than the remnants of ancient cultivation. I wonder though. The Romans never made it to the Island but alexanders are not a native British plant.
- A tall green edible perennial
- Appears in hedgerows, woodlands, and along roadsides
- Grows February to June
- Prefers areas close to the sea
- Green shiny leaves
- Stems similar to celery, especially wild celery
- Yellow-green umbel flowers 1.5-2.5″ (4-6cm) across
- Every part is edible including stems, leaves, and flowers
Foraging for Alexanders
In spring hedgerows are bursting with the strong shoots of this tasty wild vegetable. It’s mainly the stems that you’ll want to eat so look for tender off-shoots near the top of the plant. Pick a few from each plant avoiding taking the thick main stem. It’s tougher and not as nice to eat, plus picking it can damage the plant.
The UK law goes that you may forage wild stems, leaves and flowers as long the plants are not harmed. You are not permitted to dig up any roots without the landowner’s permission.
That means if you see Alexanders growing on public land, feel free to take some home. In fact, a local farmer commented on my Facebook page that he considers Alexanders an invasive plant that he’s always trying to get rid of. I’m not sure if he’ll try cooking some of it himself but apparently his sheep love it.
Alexanders have a floral flavour
I’m a newbie to eating alexanders so the photos in this piece are of my first try. They have a wonderful scent that reminds me of elderflowers and that carries on to its flavour.
For my first meal with Alexanders I simply cut the stems into segments and steamed them for eight minutes. Once dressed in a bit of butter and sea salt they are both a delicious and unique vegetable. You can also eat the leaves I hear but I’ve not tried that yet. Young leaves can be eaten raw but larger ones should be steamed or blanched.
A unique flavour in a hedgerow near you
Other sources say that the taste can be like asparagus, celery or even parsley. I found that they have a similar texture to asparagus. As for flavour, they’re more like earthy celery mixed with elderflower. It’s really unlike anything I’ve tasted before.
It’s always a bit unnerving trying a particular wild food for the first time but Alexanders are really quite easy to identify – especially at this time of the year when there are less larger plants to mistake it with. So go out for a walk, take in the sweet scents of spring and come home with some free foraged greens.