Uniquely identifiable characteristics
Distinguishing Feature :
Not to be semantically confused with :
Angelica or Garden Angelica, which are also umbellifers beginning with the letter 'A'.
In the home counties, but very few other hectads,
Perfoliate Alexaders (Smyrnium perfoliatum) is found (as well as Alexanders). At only 60cm (1m maximum) it grows to half the height of Alexanders and has yellowish-green leaves rather than the dark glossy green of Alexanders. It was introduced and naturalised in grassy places and flower borders. However, another huge difference is that the leaves strongly clasp the stem, encircling it, which is not the case with some of the photos above taken on the St. Helens Canal, although they certainly have yellowish-green leaves.
When crushed, both leaves and stem smell (and taste) of
Myrrh, hence the scientific name 'smyrnium'. It has a taste similar to that of
Celery, another umbellifer.
There are not many yellow-flowered umbellifers, only about seven, the others being Wild Parsnip, Fennel,
Pepper-saxifrage, Rock Samphire, Garden Parsley and
Hog's Fennel which is quite rare. Alexanders can not be mistaken for any of these because it has glossy large dark-green leaves which are in threes like the Ace of Clubs. Its solid stem is also stouter stem than most others. The flower umbels lack bracts.
Alexanders is native to the Mediterranean, but now well established in the UK, almost always not far from the sea. It used to be cultivated, but is now almost forgotten as a foodstuff. In taste it is intermediate in flavour between
Celery. The latter has now replaced it culinarily. It is common around mediaeval monasteries around which it was once cultivated. The
parsnip-flavoured root is boiled before eating and is mildly diuretic. The roots can be candied.
In the first year it is low and bushy with many leaves, in the second year it sprouts tall flowering stems. It was once grown in kitchen gardens of Monasteries and Castles as Wild Celery.
The genus Smyrnia are noted for their PolyAcetylides (aka Polyynes) and
FuroCoumarins. The highest concentration of Coumarins are said to be found in the seeds and in the roots of Alexanders, but your Author has been unable to ascertain which polyynes or which furocoumarins are present.
The brown fruit contains an essential oil,
cuminal, with an odour reminiscent of
cumin which also contains cuminal, its main aroma compound. Cuminal is another name for
Cumaldehyde or 4-isopropylbenzaldehyde, which is contained in the essential oils of
Cumin and some other plants.
Cuminaldehyde is related to
Cumene (isopropylbenzene) which is not a component of Cumin (nor of Alexanders).
CONSTITUENTS of ESSENTIAL OIL
All these are found in the essential oil obtained from Alexanders and contribute to its aroma when crushed.
Germacrone is a ketone derivative of Germacrene D. It exhibits anti-tumour activity, inhibiting the proliferation of breast cancer cells, but its practical use is limited by multi-drug resistance. It also inhibits early stages of influenza - but only against H1N1 and H3N2 types of Influenza A virus and also against Influenza B but in a dose-dependent manner.
Curzerene is just one of the many aromatic compounds which are also found in the non-native Myrrh (Commiphora myrrha) and is one of the three principal sesquiterpenoids which contributes to its distinct aroma profile (the two others being
β-Bourbonene and other isomers of
Bourbonene - neither of which are present in Alexanders). Several other species of the shrub Myrrh occur, one (Commiphora gileadensis) producing the Biblical Balm of Gilead oil. Curzerene is used by the perfume industry.
Just for interest one of the aromatic sesquiterpenes within Myrrh,
β-Bourbonene (which is not a constituent of Alexanders) has an unusual chemical structure with a cyclo-butane ring joined each side to a cyclo-pentane ring.
FuranoEremophil-1-one is a Naphthofuran (containing a Napthalene moiety) found in green vegetables. It belongs to the class of chemicals called FuroEremophilanes and are derived in plants from
Eudesmanes. Both Butterbur and Giant Butterbur also contain this substance.
IsoFuranoDiene is similar to the above FuranoEremophil-1-one but has a broken ring and lacks the ketone =O moiety and gains another two double-bonds. This compound is able to induce apoptosis (cell-death) in cancerous cells of the colon, which may give it pharmaceutical uses.
The latter two look similar to linear FuroCoumarins, but with certain obvious differences.