Rock Samphire (Crithmum maritimum) is a prized edible coastal plant that can be found on much of the UK coastline, but sometimes takes a bit of effort to locate. The taste is loved by some and loathed by others – John Wright claims it has a ‘carrots and kerosene’ flavour. I find it palatable, but not really worth the effort if you cannot locate it easily!
Where does Rock Samphire grow?
Rock Samphire is often listed as being rare, but it does grow in abundance in many locations (not common on the North-Eastern coast of England though). The harbour walls at Fowey are covered in the stuff, and there are big clumps on the Pembrokeshire coast.
It is said to ‘never have wet feet’ – it grows on poor soil and rocks (often on vertiginous slopes above inaccessible parts) in coastal areas but never below the mean high-water mark (MHW mark). I know of one patch near Porthmadog (the one in the photos) where the water comes within a metre of the one isolated plant on that stretch of beach but never covers it. There are several tales of shipwrecked sailors clinging to samphire-covered rocks confident in the knowledge that it will remain above the waves.
It can also be found in some older gardens – wild plants from the Dorset coast being gathered and sold to London gardeners.
Is Rock Samphire edible?
I’m ambivalent towards this plant, but as I mention above – others have a real passion for it. It’s quite a strong taste and I only tend to eat it after extensive steaming with some butter, or occasionally pickled. One of the chemicals that gives Rock Samphire its distinctive taste is pinene, a major component in turpentine…
The similarly-named but unrelated Marsh Samphire (Salicornia europaea) has more of a salty-asparagus flavour, and sometimes folk are disappointed that the ‘rock version’ doesn’t have anything reminiscent of the marsh-dwelling one.
How to identify Rock Samphire
The clustered green ‘paddles’ of the succulent leaves are probably the best indicator and the small yellow-white flowers can be found in the late-spring to early-summer months. Never found below the MHW mark, but often very close. The walls of old harbours are a good hunting ground, as are the rocks and light soils behind beaches.
Potential dangers and misidentification
Sea Aster (Tripolium pannonicum) is one common mistaken plant, but that tends to grow in estuaries and marshes.