Foraging Guide: Alexanders

Usually found in coastal regions of Britain, the Alexander is a plant of the carrot family. The leaves, stems and seeds can all be eaten. Mixed with cream cheese and wild garlic, the chopped leaves make a great filling for puff pastry bites.

12th February 2024 | Words by Dave Hamilton

Alexanders are tall, dark green, waxy-leaved plants of the carrot family. They were originally brought to Britain by the Romans, who prized the plant for its strong celery-like flavour. Roman cooks used the leaves to make herb sauces to serve with meat dishes, while the stems were blanched and eaten like asparagus. A tenacious self-seeder, the plant escaped from cultivation and established itself throughout coastal regions of the British Isles.

By medieval times it was again being cultivated in monastic herb gardens, referred to by the Latin name Petroselinum Alexandrium, or ‘the rock parsley of Alexandria’. Used as a healing herb, it was said no infirmary garden was complete without it. Indeed, the plant was claimed to cure all manner of ailments, from asthma to open wounds.

By the eighteenth century, as much of Britain’s population began to move from the countryside into towns and cities, its popularity declined. The Alexander’s strong, bitter and perfumed qualities no longer appealed to urban tastes – instead, blander and more neutral flavours like celery, brought in from Italy, were preferred.



Although Alexanders have poisonous lookalikes, they have a distinct enough appearance to set them apart with confidence. As a member of the carrot family, the flowers of the Alexander form large umbels – rounded clusters of flowers emanating from a single point. But unlike poisonous members, such as hemlock water dropwort and hemlock, Alexander flowers are yellow rather than white. The leaves are a dark glossy green and split into groups of three leaflets. They are toothed (i.e. they have jagged edges) but like the overall leaf shape, these teeth are rounded rather than sharp. You may also notice a slight yellow tinge to the stem and around the veins.

The plant has an aromatic, celery-like scent, especially when crushed. Poison hemlock looks very different – it has a foul smell and often has purple blotches on the stem, as if it has been flicked with paint. Hemlock has carrot or fern-like feathery leaves and as it flowers in the warmer months, its shoots are nowhere near as prolific as Alexanders in the late winter and spring. Similarly, hemlock water dropwort grows mostly next to rivers or wetland areas and has more triangular toothed leaflets, giving it the appearance of flat-leaf parsley. Alexanders also have dark black seeds, which contrast with the brown seeds of hemlock.

Alexanders ID Checklist

What you’re looking for:

  • Glossy leaves in the late winter and early spring 
  • Yellow flowers 
  • Groups of three leaflets – not like parsley 
  • Hard black seeds in late summer through into winter
  • Aromatic scent when crushed


Where to find them

Alexanders are mostly confined to the coast. You will usually find them along country lanes, in hedgerows and on headlands. However, they do occasionally grow inland and when established can form large colonies. They are one of the first late winter or early spring plants to sprout, so February and March are good times to go and look for the young leaves. During the spring and early summer, they begin to flower, growing up to 1.5m (4ft) high, and entire hedgerows are thick with their cheerful yellow flowers. Look for the dark seeds later in the year, from late summer right though into winter.


Using Alexanders

Use the early shoots in moderation in mixed salads or as a pot herb, giving soups and stews a strong, celery-like flavour. It pairs particularly well with fish and seafood. Finely chopped and mixed with melted butter and a squeeze of lemon juice, it also makes a fine dressing for new potatoes or spring asparagus.

Alternatively, you can cook them as the Romans did and steam the stems before peeling them, dressing with butter or hollandaise sauce and serving as a vegetable side dish.

Meanwhile, the dark black seeds are deliciously aromatic and can be used as a spice in sweet or savoury dishes. Treat them as you would peppercorns and grind or blitz them up in a mill or spice grinder. Try them on a poached egg – you won’t regret it!


Cream Cheese and Alexander Puff Pastry Bites Recipe

These delicious puff pastry bites combine the pungency of Alexander leaves and wild garlic with the palate-cleansing freshness of cream cheese. It’s essentially a sort of forager’s version of sour cream and onion, or cheese and chive. They make an excellent hors d’oeuvre, served either as an appetiser or as a starter. 


  • 150g Alexander leaves 
  • 3 to 4 wild garlic leaves 
  • 75g cream cheese
  • ½ onion 
  • Butter or oil for frying
  • A pinch of crushed Alexander seeds 
  • A pinch of sea salt
  • 1 sheet of ready-roll puff pastry
  • 1 tbsp of milk for glazing


    1. Pre-heat the oven (or air fryer) to 190°C/Gas Mark 5.
    2. Finely dice the onion. 
    3. Heat the oil or butter in a pan on a moderate to low heat and sweat the onion until translucent. Remove from the pan and leave to cool.
    4. Chop the wild garlic and Alexander leaves, being careful to remove any tough stems. 
    5. Mix the cooked onion and chopped leaves with the cream cheese. Season to taste. 
    6. Using a sharp knife, cut the puff pastry sheet into 12 square pieces of equal size. 
    7. Spoon an equal amount of the mixture into the centre of each pastry square.
    8. Fold in the corners of each square so they meet in the middle. Brush the pastry with a little milk, as this will help it brown. Sprinkle with sea salt and the crushed Alexander seeds.  
    9. Cook in the oven or an air fryer for 12 to 20 minutes or until the pastry has risen and turned golden brown.

Dave Hamilton is the author of Where the Wild Things Grow: the Foragers Guide to the Landscape, published by Hodder and Stoughton. He has led the Guardian Masterclass in foraging and currently works as an instructor for Britain’s leading foraging course company, Wild Food UK.

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