Cornish wildflowers: alexanders

Cornwall’s rich in wildflowers. And that’s good, because wages in the county are low, so it’s good to be rich in something–even something that doesn’t pay the rent.

In response to a recent post, Dan Antion asked me to say more about one of them, alexanders, which he noticed in a recent irrelevant photo. Breaking all my self-imposed blogging rules, I’ll repeat the photo below, even though it’s now relevant.

(I don’t actually object to relevant photos, I just object to the effort it takes to come up with them when they don’t present themselves naturally.)

Here’s what I’ve been able to learn about the plant:

Alexanders tend to grow near the sea, because (according to Collins’ Wildflowers) they’re “probably more sensitive” to frosts.

Probably? Doesn’t the author know? He’s writing a plant book. He’s supposed to know this stuff. And more sensitive than what? Tropical lizards?

Never mind. We’ll have to settle for learning what we can here, then moving on.

Repeat photo, which has now become relevant: alexanders

Alexanders flower from April to June and were “formerly grown as a herb, and used in cooking like Celery.”

Why is celery capitalized? Because it’s a Plant and this is a Plant Book and it’s not uncommon in British English to capitalize Words in the middle of Sentences. Especially when they’re Nouns and strike the Author as important. ( I so want to capitalize important, since it’s important, but it’s not a noun, so I’ll restrain myself.) I don’t think it’s the approved style—newspapers and books don’t mess around that way for the most part—but if you get out into the real world, where the rules of grammar and punctuation and all that other good stuff don’t necessarily apply, you’ll find a lot of capital-happy people.

It’s not that we don’t do strange stuff with the language in the U.S., but that doesn’t happen to be the strange stuff we do. Unless we’re talking about corporate or organizational writing, where suddenly all sorts of Committees and other nounish things get capitalized because they’re important and we don’t want anyone to forget it.

Why does the quote read “a herb” instead of “an herb”? Because the British pronounce the H in herb, making it sound like the short version of Herbert.

Okay, I’m not sure they have a shortened version of the name Herbert, I’ve never heard it, but then I’ve never met anyone named Herbert here. Why not? As far as I can tell, it’s because Herbert is slang for someone dopey and dull. I’ve never heard anyone say, “He’s a real Herbert”–in fact, I’ve never heard Herbert used as slang for anything–but that’s the sentence that popped up when I consulted Dr. Google.

Any number of first names don’t cross the Atlantic, and some of the ones that do change genders in mid-ocean.

But back to pronunciation. Americans don’t pronounce the H in herb, so it sounds like a city: an urb, just screaming for an N before the A.

Actually, none of that is on topic. We’re talking about plants.

Field Guide to the Wildflowers of Britain says the plant’s called alexanders  because it’s “a herb of Macedonia, the country of Alexander the Great.” In the seventeenth century, the seeds were sold by apothecaries to cure flatulence and snakebite and to warm a cold stomach.

No, I don’t know what warming a cold stomach means either. Medical writing of that period doesn’t translate well to our understanding of how the body works.

The whole plant’s edible—the stems can be eaten like asparagus, the flower buds in salads, the roots like parsnips, and the dark green leaves “can be made into a white sauce or used as a herb.”

While we’re on the subject of things I don’t know, I don’t understand how dark green leaves make a white sauce. Maybe you serve them with a white sauce. Maybe they make you go color blind.

The plant’s a member of the parsley family.

For some reason, even one lone sample of the plant gets a plural name, as in “alexanders is very confusing.” But the Field Guide doesn’t capitalize random nouns, so let’s trust it on the pluralish name.

The Wildflowers of Britain and Ireland says alexanders were also called horse parsley, black pot-herb (from the color of the seeds), and heal-root. The Romans called it the parsley of Alexander (except of course they called it that in Latin, and that was especially useful since English hadn’t been invented yet) and brought it to Britain with them to use as both a spring vegetable and a medicine. It not only warmed a cold stomach (and I’m not sure if we’re talking here about the way the Romans used it or if we’re back in the seventeenth century), it expelled an afterbirth, broke wind (or, presumably, caused a person to, since being of the vegetable persuasion it couldn’t do that for itself), and provoked urine.

Me? I’d be nervous about provoking urine. I’m not sure what it does once it’s mad at you.

It also did a few other things—or at least it was believed to. Sailors used to put ashore and collect it because it was believed to cure scurvy. I expect they were right about that, since they would have been highly motivated to observe its effect.

It was popular in kitchen gardens until new varieties of celery were introduced.

The tops can be pickled.

All the books that address the question agree that if you’re eating the plant it should be cut early—before the buds open. So I’m too late to taste it for you this spring. And by next year you’ll have forgotten all about it.

82 thoughts on “Cornish wildflowers: alexanders

  1. Your gentle critique of Collins aside, that you even own a book called “Collins’s Wildflowers” is impressive (and seems very English, but that might just be my warped American lens on things :) )

    Liked by 1 person

    • You could be right about it being very English but I’m just not sure. My partner was a dedicated birder before she lost part of her sight, so the idea of having books that catalog the natural world came to seem fairly normal, even before we moved here. What’s particularly British, is the profusion of wildflowers that drove me to buy flower books. For a while I tried keeping track of them without being able to name them, but it’s impossible. I’d think, Okay, little yellow flower; bigger yellow flower; other yellow flower that might be bigger than the first one but might not be because I forget how big it was. And so on, endlessly. I bought my first flower book to keep myself marginally sane.

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  2. Ah. The pompous capital, one of my pet peeves. Perhaps it is a journalistic Thing. I take my red pen to the pompous Capital, yet still authors insist on using them. I find it so annoying that I deliberately use lower case for the odd few words that could, possibly, maybe, justify a Cap.

    I am wary of claims that all parts of plants can be eaten. While nasturtium flowers and leaves are well and good, I tried pickling the seeds on the lure of them tasting like capers. They didn’t. They tasted like nothing.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mmmmm, yum, the taste of nothing. How could you resist?

      I have the same reaction to the pompous cap. (I never thought to call it that but will from here on. Thanks for that.) When I edited a small writers magazine and got to set the house style, it was radically lower case. I’m sure I drove the organization it belonged to nuts, because all its important committees lost their caps. Vengeance is sweet.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Ah. Yes. The Committees. I can live with the Recreation and Amenities Committee because it is a title. But the Committee? No. I don’t even like writing the Queen, the Government, the House etc. I can possibly accept the Queen because I think she has a crap job and has worked hard. But the goverrnment and house are the very definition of pomposity. Incompetent pomposity at that. No caps for them. Off with their caps!

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        • Off with their caps indeed! (We’re getting more moderate here. My last post had a few people talking about guillotines.)

          I worked with a journalist for a while whose rule about capping titles was that it was only if it was actually being used as a title in the sentence. So Queen Elizabeth, but the queen. I continue, in my relentless and pig-headed way, to use that style. Which is sort of funny, because now that I’m retired I don’t care about a lot of style questions. Caps, though? They still make me snarl and snap.

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          • I like your journo friend. I suspect me and s/he could be off with their caps pals. One, refers to the Queen of England, or Queen Elizabeth the Second, or possibly Elizabeth Windsor. Thereafter, why not the queen? Perfectly clear. We aren’t talking about any other queens. Lack of clarity in writing. Hence the invention of the Pompous Capital. I think pompous deserves a cap too.

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  3. Alexander grows in abundance on the Norfolk coast also and smells rather super, I think.
    With regards to Herbert (or herbert) – my mum has always used it to indicate someone of rough or questionable character, usually youngsters, as in – ‘They look like right little herberts’. I know of no British Herberts at all, but a friend of mine from Nashville has it as his middle name.

    Liked by 1 person

    • “Right little herberts” has a convincing rhythm, don’t you think? Once you hear that, how could you disagree?

      Herbert’s one of those generational names in the U.S. Even when I was a kid, it wasn’t popular anymore. As far as I can remember, I’ve known some Herbs in passing but never any Herberts who used their full names.

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  4. Random capitalisation of nouns is the bane of my life!! Well one of them… I am always explaining to the lovely engineers I work with that capitalising things for emphasis and because they thing the word is important is not a thing!!

    So far just this morning i have had “Task Statement” “Operational Sequence” “Functional Tasks” and “Acronyms” all in the space of 5 lines :-/

    I must spend more time uncapitalising things than I do actually writing! So much time that it has caused me to make up the word uncapitalising (which, ironically, I almost capitalised…)

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Thanks for the answer. Sorry I wasn’t able to get here sooner. I guess I would have been more sorry, had I been bitten by a snake in the meantime. I like the flatulence and snakebite are somehow on par with each other and can be cured with one magic herb. Good to know. I wonder if I can substituted “snakebite” in the event of an untimely gas attack? Sorry, this comment is going off the rails.

    I work with a lot of capital-happy corporate people. I’ve spent years lower-casing capitals in presentations. Some bullet points had every noun capitalized.

    I’m with you on not provoking urine. Of course, the remnants of my teenage brain want to know, if you provoked urine, would it be p*ssed off?

    I’d better stop.

    Liked by 1 person

    • > Some bullet points had every noun capitalized.
      Was the presenter German? In written German every noun is capitalised. It’s a nice, easy rule to remember (unlike German’s case declensions: der, die, das, die, den, die, das, die, dem, der, dem, den, des, der, des, der… Arghhh!)

      Liked by 2 people

        • Yep, I’m serious about both points. Though English is grammatically a Germanic language, it long ago abandoned gender for the majority of nouns, but German cetainly hasn’t. All nouns are masculine, feminine or neuter, and the definite and indefinite article has to “agree” with the gender of the noun: der Mann (the man), die Frau (the woman), das Buch (the book – gender is neuter).

          Even worse, on top of that you have to “decline” (some weird grammatical term) according to what role (“case” – another grammatical term) the noun plays in the sentence. For example: “Die Frau sehe den Mann” (the woman sees the man). In this case it’s den Man, not der Mann, because the man is the object of the sentence, not the subject. Then if we’re talking about indirect objects like this: “Der Polizist gibt dem Mann einen Strafzettel” (the policeman gives the man a ticket), you have to say dem Mann, not der Mann, because now the man is the indirect object of the sentence. There are four of these cases that you have to learn the declensions for: nominative (subject), accusative (direct object), dative (indirect object), and genitive (possession). And adjectives decline (have different endings) in accordance with these rules as well. It’s a nightmare you have to deal with when you learn German. Old English did the same thing, but with the coming of those naughty Norman Frenchies into our green and pleasant land in 1066, the whole lot got simplified during medieval times, leaving us with a mongrel language that doesn’t bother with such niceties – thank goodness.

          Liked by 1 person

          • I studied a Russian for a year a bit more than 50 years ago, and when I quit we’d just been introduced to cases, which I thought of as conjugating nouns. I sort of understand the concept but can’t do anything useful with it. I’ve never found a reason to be grateful to the Normans till now, but I’ll join you in being grateful.

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  6. I was thinking that I’d never heard of alexanders despite the plant looking familiar. Then you referenced horse parsley and I realized I did know it. My Granddad liked to pick wild herbs and things like wild garlic when we were out for rambles. I don’t recall consuming it but perhaps I did and it never made an impression.

    My Dad’s name is Herbert. He was accidentally named for his uncle so I think even in his generation the name was very much waning in popularity. He’s always gone by Bert. My Mum, however, calls him Herbie from time to time which gives away the fact his Bert is short for Herbert rather than Albert or Robert.

    Liked by 1 person

      • That is not a shortening I have come across. Very original. My Dad loathes his given name and sadly the uncle responsible for his name did not gift him a middle name so he was stuck with it. He made all of his children and grandchildren promise they would never name offspring after him. I don’t think there was much risk any of us would even consider it.

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  7. Ellen, I wanted to send a reply, but when I tried earlier my L wasn’t working so it would have looked something like:
    E en, your mind works in such an unusua manner. I augh and augh when I read your words and ponder over how you think about the wor d–
    Actua y, seeing that in print it now seems fair y easy to make out what I was getting at. Perhaps L’s don’t matter much at a .

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Alexanders look somewhat like “Queen Anne’s Lace” which my area has in abundance. Which is basically a wild carrot, so I guess that puts it in the parsley family too. At least the caterpillars it gets also have the nickname “parsley worms”, so that’s probably the right family. (Although I don’t care for the name “parsley worms” when they are really the caterpillars of magnificent black swallowtail butterflies, that are deserving of a more dignified name than that.)

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Yeah, off with their caps! Will never mention a guillotine again, Ellen. Maybe we could just blow their caps off with a gentle whoosh of hot air. Anyway, have just sat and chuckled my whole way through your piece and ensuing comments. What a lovely way to spend a few minutes in the garden. No alexanders round here however. But a lot of Alexandres (I almost put an apostrophe there but no, this is just a plural) to be found in this city, of all ages, shapes and sizes.
    Juliet, Angers, France

    Liked by 1 person

  10. The last Herb I can remember getting any type of prominence was the love bug, and that’s only after they ‘cutsied’ his name to Herbie.

    Had the anthropomorphic vehicle been Herbert, I suspect children would have run screaming from him in terror.

    No capital letters were abused in this post.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. I’m still pondering over the precise meaning of Ice Badger’s statement :”…the bane of my life, well, one of them anyway…” How many lives does he have ?

    Liked by 1 person

    • You raise an important question there. Being that she’s an ice badger and all–well, I don’t know much about the life cycle of the ice badger. So maybe several. We’ll have to wait and see if she enlightens us.

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  12. I’d never heard of alexanders, despite being a plant nut, so thanks for the info. As for Herbert, yes it’s an old-fashioned name, but to many (including me) it’s associated with Herbert West, who is quite an interesting character.

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  13. Pingback: US V UK – Jessica Bakkers

  14. So many Connections! So little Time! As I am a Sandra, I am derived from Alexander, so it warms my Stomach to know I have an Urb of my own over yonder. Plus, my uncle Herbie was a dear, sweet Man who, like all of us on that Germanic side of the Family, excelled at Flatulence.
    More Wildflower News, please! I may find more Relatives who switched genders half-way across the Pond.

    Liked by 2 people

  15. Herbert [*alice announces in an authoritative tone, albeit apropos of nothing of any real significance*] was my favorite name as a child, for reasons now lost to the sands of time. Supposing there were ever reasons to begin with, that is. I named everything Herbert. EVERYTHING. The goldfish I got with a special coupon from a McDonald’s happy meal. The boy at school I had the crush on–who had a name of his own already, but I called him Herbert regardless. (#flirtinglikeabawse) The good pencil sharpener.

    Please don’t ask about that last one. I am quite sure I can’t invent even an implausible explanation.

    Herbert the Goldfish, I am sorry to report, being of an exceptionally weak constitution even for a happy meal-coupon-prize fish, died less than 48 hours after I brought him home. I buried him out back beneath an enormous pine tree, where I held mournful vigils in honor of poor departed Herbert for almost a week, at least. Thank heavens I still had the pencil sharpener to console me.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. The wildflowers here in the Hill Country are not as abundant this year as they were last year. Well, “here” means in our immediate neighbourhood. There are other areas where they blossom(ed) like mad.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. Hihih, I had to giggle at Plant Capitalisation, and when white sauce and colour blindness hit I was already reading it out to amore. ♫♪ Gotta love a good, argumentative and example-rich article. I’m highly interested in British-American differences of all sorts.

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