Thursday, April 19, 2007

Red Samphire, Salicornia var. rubra, pickleweed, saltwort...

... or you may know it as "swampfire" or "sea asparagus".

I like "swampfire"; that is what it looks like, from a distance.

salicornia rubraDriving from Kamloops to Merritt, three summers ago, we passed an area of low-lying ponds and marshes fringed with tall green grasses, a welcome sight in that dry country. And by one of them, a long spill of blood-red. There was a gate in the fence, and a parking space; we stopped and walked down.

I had expected flowers. Or at the least, red seed pods. Not this: segmented, leafless, fat stems, red from the ground up, up to about 8 inches tall. Like a succulent, but not like any one I had seen before. I pulled up a few, roots and all, to take home for identification.

red samphireWe couldn't find it in any of our BC books, but it showed up in a Canada-wide reference book; it grows, the book said, in the prairie provinces, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. (I have since found it in a BC Online guide, E-Flora BC. And it is common in Australia.) It grows in alkaline and saline soils, near sloughs and salt marshes.

I didn't realize how well aclimatized it was to the salt, until I ran into another variety of the same plant, Salicornia pacifica, on the beach at Boundary Bay. Reading up on this, I found that, not only does it tolerate salt, it needs it to survive.

The plant has a unique way of dealing with the salt; some salt-marsh plants secrete the salt to the surface of the leaves, leaving them covered with shining crystals. Salicornia, instead, moves the excess salt it takes from the soil into vacuoles in the stem tips, where it is contained behind a protective membrane. When the salt content becomes too much, the cell dies and drops off. Which is a good way to get rid of it, but so efficient is saltwort at this job that it needs to replenish the supply. In technical terms, it is an obligatory halophyte.

Samphire, both red and green, is edible, a good source of vegetable oil and can be used as a flavourful addition to salads; Googling around, I found that it is sold in the UK as a vegetable, which can be simply boiled up and eaten with butter, or added to recipes. Market gardeners irrigate it with sea water.

And from my old blog, I copy this recipe, from "Cooks Afloat":

1 cup sea asparagus
1 cup shelled beach peas
1 orange, peeled and chipped
2 tbsp toasted pine nuts


2 tbsp balsamic vinegar
2 tbsp orange juice
1 tbsp olive oil
1 tsp Dijon mustard
pinch of salt
1/4 tsp sugar.

Sea asparagus, known as American glasswort or Pacific samphire (Salicornia pacifica), is a succulent, salty-tasting plant with leafless jointed stems. The blue green plant grows around tide flats and salt marshes.
Beach pea (Lathyrus japonicus or littoralis) is a perennial herb that grows on sandy beaches. The leaves are rounded and japonicus has tendrils. American vetch has similar seed pods-but is toxic.
In early summer, gather only the tender upper stems of sea asparagus, wash thoroughly to remove salt. Cover with water, bring to a boil and drain immediately. Add a small amount of fresh water. Steam until tender-crisp, about 5 minutes. Drain well. Steam the beach peas for 5 minutes.

Toss beach peas with asparagus and let cool. Arrange on plates and top with orange and nuts. Toss dressing ingredients together and pour over salad. Serves 2.

Sounds good, but I think I'll try the samphire on its own, first.

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