Glasswort, Common Glasswort, Sanfer, Sandforth
Marsh Samphire (Salicornia europaea) has little to do with the similarly-named Rock Samphire other than their location and a vaguely similar taste. Marsh Samphire, AKA Glasswort, is found in estuary mud and the intertidal edges of creeks and some muddy harbours.
Where does Marsh Samphire grow?
You aren’t going to come back from a foraging mission for Marsh Samphire without risking muddy feet – it grows in the rich mud of estuaries and salt marshes, almost exclusively in the intertidal zone just below the MHW mark.
It is found all around the coast of the UK – although scarcely seen on rocky, sandy or exposed shores. The edges of creeks and smaller rivers that merge into gently lapping waves are always worth investigating. I have found it almost exclusively in the intertidal zone (the area of beach/shore exposed at low tide, but covered twice a day by water), although I have occasionally found lonely examples trying to survive well above the waterline.
Marsh Samphire is a halophyte, a plant that thrives in saline conditions. The cells of the plant contain a solution of sodium salts that is strong enough to overcome the osmotic pressure of the seawater that surrounds it at high tide.
In East Anglia it has been prized as a local delicacy, and often sold alongside fresh fish and other seafoods, and has also been used as source of salt for the glassmaking industry – hence the alternative name of ‘Glasswort’. Piles of the plant were burned and then the ash mixed in with sand to make a soda-based (rather than potash-based) glass. It is claimed that there was ‘no English word’ for the plant prior to the arrival of Venetian glassmakers to England around 4-500 years ago.
In Lancashire Marsh Samphire has been traditionally pickled, as it has in most populated coastal areas of the UK.
You will also find bundles of Samphire for sale in supermarkets, either on the fish counter or packaged in plastic. These are cultivated species, often grown indoors or in climate-controlled conditions far from the sea.
Is Marsh Samphire edible?
Marsh Samphire is edible raw, steamed or pickled. One traditional way to eat it involves holding it by the root and stripping the flesh from the stem with your teeth. The succulent flesh has a salty taste, with a hint of the iodine you find with seaweed.
Tradition dictates that it shouldn’t be harvested before the Summer Solstice, but it is edible throughout the growing cycle. It is found above ground from the start of the Spring warming right until the return of colder weather in late September. Regional variation and temperature will dictate the length of that season.
Pickling is the traditional way to preserve this plant, offsetting the natural saltiness and making it useful as an addition to fish dishes year-round. I treat it a little like a miniature, salty asparagus and boil it (or steam) and then serve with melted butter or a suitable oil.
How to identify Marsh Samphire
It is best described as a very small, mud-dwelling cactus and that pretty much covers it. Each plant may have several primitive, branching stems but may also appear as a solitary stem if it has been disturbed by the action of waves or even trampling. From later Spring until late Summer you may see ‘carpets’ of Marsh Samphire growing in flat muddy areas at low tide, and it is easy to distinguish it from other salt-loving plants also found in that environment.
Potential dangers and misidentification
There are several other species within the Salicornia genus that are found on the shores of the UK, but none of these are toxic and even experts can struggle to tell the difference. All plants collected from estuaries and muddy coastal areas must be washed before eating to remove mud and any potential contaminants that may have been deposited on the surface.
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