Wild Food: Marsh Samphire
Along the still edges of salt marshes lurks the quiet presence of Marsh Samphire (Salicornia europaea). Also known as Glasswort, Samphire Grass, Salty fingers or Pickle weed.
Marsh samphire is quite a popular wild food, due to its availability in Fishmongers and Supermarkets. Here in the in the UK its popularity soared after it was served in 1981 as part of Prince Charles' and Lady Diana's Wedding Breakfast. Such is this country's fascination with the royals!
'Salicorne des marais' in French and romantically names 'sea vegetables', the popularity of Marsh Samphire is expected to stay.
Where does it grow?
Marsh samphire loves to grow on estuaries, salty marshes and mud flats. It thrives in a mixture of fresh and saline water and is unusual in its ability to cope with being covered by the high tide twice a day.
Here in Cornwall there are 6 major estuaries where such plants can flourish. It is commonly associated with the mudflats and lowlands of Norfolk where it is also cultivated and harvested commercially.
Native to Europe, North America, the Middle-East, Central Asia and Southern Africa. This is plant that you can literally find across four continents!
When does it grow?
The peak picking season for Marsh samphire is June to August, or Summer depending where you are in the world. Earlier than this the fronds can be too small to be worth while picking. Later than this, the inner stalks can be woody. Although sucking the juicy flesh off these hardy stems can be a fun part of the eating ritual!
Is it safe to pick?
Yes and no. It depends.
Marsh samphire is a salty, wild food that has been eaten for thousands of years. However, the cleanliness of the area you're picking from is paramount. All sorts of waste pollution, including heavy metals, can accumulate in their muddy growing environment. It is worthwhile doing thorough research on the water quality and history of the area to make sure it is safe. Always rinse the plant before eating to wash off any surface bacteria and pollutants too.
The picture above shows Marsh samphire with a hint of redness. It looks pretty, but this is a sign of stress, either from heat, weather changes or soil/mud quality. The red ones are best not picked for food.
How do you cook it?
Marsh samphire just needs rinsing, then blanching for 1 minute in hot water. Serve it hot and fresh with fish or sea food. Have just as it is or lathered with butter. This is my favourite and the simplest way of enjoying it.
It also keeps well in the fridge for up to 1 week.
Pickled marsh samphire is also a popular way of preserving it. Add spices to the vinegar. Put in a pan with the samphire. Bring to the boil, take off the heat and allow to cool before storing in jars in the fridge. Best enjoyed after 2 weeks.
What's the difference between Marsh and Rock Samphire?
Marsh samphire and Rock samphire are often confused by name, but rarely by sight or taste. Let us look at some basics.
- Marsh samphire grows in salty marshes and mud flats while Rock samphire always grows above the high tide mark.
- Marsh samphire is a salty succulent while Rock samphire has a citrusy tang.
- Marsh samphire has to be picked from the ground, Rock samphire is commonly on cliffs or walls, yet sometimes grows at higher ground level.
- Rock samphire is a member of the Umbelliferae or Carrot family, distinguished by the 'umbel' shaped flower head. Marsh samphire is a member of the Amaranthaceae family.
- Marsh samphire is made up of succulent, sausage-like segments. Rock samphire has a tubular main stem and flat fronds, normally 2-3 off each branch.
Correctly identifying Marsh Samphire
As well following the points made above, Marsh samphire may grow alongside other plants that look similar. In the picture below, Sea blite (Saueda maritima) is in the foreground and Marsh samphire is behind. Sea blite is not a succulent and has a different structure, but may grow to a similar height. Luckily it is also edible, though not as tasty as Marsh samphire (in my opinion).
In general, if you're note sure don't pick a plant and definitely don't eat something you're not sure about. You may want to join a foraging course or book a private foray to learn through hands on experience about foraging - there's nothing like touching, smelling, picking and eating wild food!
How to pick Marsh samphire
It is best to harvest this plant with a pair of scissors or pen knife for speed and to protect the plant. Always pick where there is an abundance and cutting the stems stops the plant being pulled out (uprooted) by accident.
Why pick and eat Marsh samphire
There's nothing like the satisfaction of picking your own wild food. The whole experience can make your food more tasty!
Alongside this, Marsh samphire is a low calorie food. It is full of beneficial minerals such as magnesium, potassium and calcium and vitamins such as A, B and C. It is also thought to contain anti-inflammatory compounds and antioxidants that are found in many sea vegetables.