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Samphire, of the true sort, is a herb difficult to be gathered, because it grows only out of the crevices of lofty perpendicular rocks which cannot be easily scaled. This genuine Samphire (Crithmum maritimum) is a small plant, bearing yellow flowers in circular umbels on the tops of the stalks, which flowers are followed by seeds like those of the Fennel, but larger.
The leaves are juicy, with a warm aromatic taste, and may be put into sauce; or they make a good appetising condimentary pickle, which is wholesome for scrofulous subjects. Persons living by the coast cook this plant as a pot herb. Formerly, it was regularly cried in the London streets, and was then called Crest Marine.
Shakespeare alludes in well-known lines to the hazardous proceedings of the Samphire gatherer's "dreadful trade":--
"How fearful And dizzy 'tis to cast one's eyes so low! The crows and choughs that wing the midway air Show scarce so gross as beetles: half-way down Hangs one that gathers Samphire: dreadful trade! Methinks he seems to bigger than his head."--King Lear.
And Evelyn has praised the plant for excellence of flavour, as well as for aromatic virtues against the spleen. Pliny says Samphire is the very herb that the good country wife Hecate prepared for Theseus when going against the Bull of Marathon.
Its botanic name is from the Greek crithe, "barley," because the seeds are thought to resemble that grain. The title Samphire is derived from the French Herbe de St. Pierre, because the roots strike deep in the crevices of rocks. St. Peter's Wort has become corrupted to Sampetre, Sampier, and Samphire.
A spurious Samphire, the Inula crithmoides, or Golden Samphire, is often supplied in lieu of the real plant, though it has a different flavour, and few of the proper virtues. This grows more abundantly on low rocks, and on ground washed by salt water. Also a Salicornia, or jointed Glasswort, or Saltwort, or Crabgrass, is sold as Samphire for a pickle, in the Italian oil shops.
Gerard says of Samphire: "It is the pleasantest sauce, most familiar, and best agreeing with man's body."
"Preferable," adds Evelyn, "for cleansing the passages, and sharpening appetite, to most of our hotter herbs, and salad ingredients."