The samphire, glasswort, or sea asparagus, is a wild and edible plant, widely found in Italy. It grows along the coasts, preferring high-salinity soils characteristic of marine environments. Apart from its unique growing location, its nutritional properties are noteworthy.
It’s a plant known since ancient times. Vikings even consumed it regularly during their long journeys along the coasts of Europe.
Let’s discover its characteristics and see how it can be easily used in the kitchen, especially during the summer, to accompany fish-based dishes.
Botanical Characteristics of Samphire
Samphire belongs to the botanical family Chenopodiaceae. The most common species in our territory is Salicornia europaea.
It’s an annual plant with succulent characteristics, capable of storing large amounts of water due to special tissues (aquiferous parenchyma), enabling it to withstand long periods of drought. A dear example of such plants to us is aloe.
Another feature of sea asparagus is that it’s halophytic, meaning it adapts to saline soils with a chloride concentration exceeding 1%. For most plants, this limit is intolerable.
For this reason, samphire grows near the sea, and sometimes we find it in saltwater pools as well. The plant tends to grow forming dense bushes, covering vast areas with greenery, creating a unique ecosystem called a samphire marsh.
Sea asparagus grows in a bush-like form, with erect, fleshy, and branched stems. These stems feature small, fleshy leaves shaped like flattened scales. The stems of samphire don’t reach great heights, usually ranging from 10 to 40 cm, but sometimes they can exceed this size.
Stems and branches all point upwards and appear bright green during the spring vegetative period. During late summer and autumn, the plant blooms and takes on a reddish hue.
The flowers are very small, barely noticeable, green in color, with yellow anthers, and they are found in the leaf axils.
Nutritional Properties of Sea Asparagus
The environment in which samphire grows contributes to its high mineral content. In the past, the plant was burned, and its ashes were used to obtain sodium carbonate, which was used in glass production processes and soap making.
The nutritional parameters of sea asparagus indicate that it’s a low-calorie food (only 22 kcal per 100 g), but rich in sodium (15.8 mg). Other significant elements include vitamin A and C, iron, iodine, bromine, potassium, and calcium.
Due to these components, samphire has purifying, refreshing, and antiscorbutic properties. It’s recommended for individuals with hypothyroidism, as it provides iodine and has a calming effect.
A curiosity: even cattle are fond of it due to its high salt content. When given the chance in a pasture near the sea, they always seek it out.
Uses in the Kitchen
The stems of sea asparagus, primarily harvested in the summer, are consumed and used in cooking. It’s a wild herb with a taste of the sea, making it an exceptional accompaniment to any fish-based dish.
When harvested and consumed as is, it has a very salty taste. To lessen this strong saltiness, it can be soaked in water for 24 hours. Subsequently, it should be lightly blanched. After soaking, it retains a pleasant taste and aroma of the sea breeze.
A tasty salad, perfect as a side dish with fish dishes, can be prepared with blanched sea asparagus, lemon, and balsamic vinegar.
Other recipes where samphire is used include fish-based soups or pasta dishes.
It’s challenging to find this plant in the market; typically, fishermen collect it and then sell it to fishmongers after returning from their boats. A much simpler solution is to gather it yourself, perhaps during a seaside excursion.
- The Journal of Ecology, 1935: “A quantitative study of the influence of tide upon populations of Salicornia europea.” – This research delves into how tidal patterns and variations directly influence the growth and distribution of Salicornia europea populations.
- Soil Science and Plant Nutrition, 2007: “Effect of inoculation with a strain of Pseudomonas pseudoalcaligenes isolated from the endorhizosphere on salt tolerance of the glasswort.” – The study investigates how introducing a specific bacterial strain can enhance the salt tolerance capabilities of the glasswort plant.
- Chemistry and Ecology, 2014: “Phytoavailability and potential transfer of Pb from a salt-affected soil to Atriplex verucifera, Salicornia europaea and Chenopodium album.” – This research focuses on the potential transfer of lead from salt-affected soils to Salicornia europaea and other related plants.
- Physiologia Plantarum, 1971: “The Influence of Salinity and Temperature on Seed Germination in Salicornia bigelovii.” – The paper explores the combined effects of salinity and temperature on the germination process of Salicornia bigelovii seeds.
- Sustainable Development and Biodiversity Volume IV, 2014: “Ecology, Distribution and Ecophysiology of Salicornia Europaea L.” – A comprehensive overview detailing the ecological patterns, widespread distribution, and physiological aspects of Salicornia Europaea.
- J. Food Nutr Research, 2018: “Study of the efficacy of two extraction techniques from Crithmum maritimum and Salicornia Europeae in fresh pasta to enhance phenolic compounds and antioxidant activity.” – The study evaluates two extraction methods aimed at enriching fresh pasta with antioxidants using Salicornia Europeae.
- International Journal of Food Science and Technology, 2019: “Extract of Salicornia Europeae in fresh pasta to enhance phenolic compounds and antioxidant activity.” – The paper investigates the potential benefits of incorporating Salicornia Europeae extracts into fresh pasta to boost its antioxidant properties.
- Ecological Engineering, 2015: “Ameliorants improve saline–alkaline soils on a large scale in northern Jiangsu Province, China.” – The study focuses on various techniques and ameliorants that can enhance the quality of saline-alkaline soils in northern Jiangsu.
- Plant and Soil, 2012: “The roots of the halophyte Salicornia brachiata are a source of new halotolerant diazotrophic bacteria with plant growth-promoting potential.” – This research uncovers the potential of Salicornia brachiata roots as a rich source of halotolerant bacteria beneficial for plant growth.