Smyrnium olusatrum, Alexanders, in Shropshire and the rust, Puccinia smyrnii
Shropshire Flora Group Newsletter 7 - Autumn 1998 - page 6-7
Dr T.F. Preece
If Alexanders is not considered to be a rare plant in Shropshire because it is an "introduction" (Sinker, 1985) it certainly has an interesting, strange distribution here, and is one of our most striking plants, with its early dramatically glossy foliage in the spring and lovely yellow umbels atop tall plants later in the year.
An alien - but long established at a few sites - probably for hundreds of years here. Found along coasts everywhere, inland sites have a very peculiar interest. It may have originated in Smyrnia (Alexandria) but it is now one of the most interesting botanical sights, e.g. along the North Wales coast - never far from the seaside in the British Isles.
In Shropshire, for many years it was only properly recorded from two sites - the amazing area around Laura's Tower at Shrewsbury Castle (SJ4912), where it forms almost continuous cover today. The other is at Ludlow Castle (SO5174), both being in Leighton's 1841 Flora. The late Doris Pugh, who lived at Pant near Oswestry, knew of a third site but it was lost (Sinker, 1985).
Left: a leaf of Alexanders infected with Puccinia smyrnii.
When we came back to Shropshire in 1989 I found a large patch of it in a corner adjoining my garden at Llynclys (SJ2724). Later, plants were found (possibly originating from the plants observed by Doris Pugh) in the grounds of a new house built in Pant. During the last decade neighbours have planted out Alexanders along the field side of their gardens in Turner's Lane, Llynclys, where it is rapidly increasing.
Because of my interest in the somewhat unusual rust (Uredinales) on this plant over the last 10 years an intensive search has continued for Alexanders at sites throughout Shropshire. A single plant was found at Merrington Green (SJ4620) on the roadside in 1993; another single plant in the grounds of Dudmaston (SO7488) in 1997. A cautionary tale can be told about the roadside in Knockin (SJ3322). A verge with almost continuous Alexanders there in 1995 was thought by locals to originate from "sowing" of wild plants in the 1950s (the same person who sowed wild flowers near the Jodrell Bank telescope at Knockin). Very little is left of this stand now because of the construction of a new Doctor's Surgery there two years ago!
Attempts to find the site in Bridgnorth (SO79) cited by Leighton have failed.
It is very probable that the Shrewsbury Castle and Ludlow Castle stands are remainders of Middle Ages plantings. It is tempting to associate Llynclys records with the activities of Romans - there are so many records in Britain of them using the plant, as we would use celery today (the Romans were very active here mining for several elements). The isolated single plants at Merrington Green and Dudmaston cannot be explained away like this. One development which will perhaps interest readers is that Alexanders is for sale as a herb in at least one place (Pentre) in Shropshire and people may be planting it in gardens now, and it may well escape from these sites.
Records of Alexanders in Shropshire
The rust Puccinia smyrnii Biv.-Bernh is a dramatic sight on the plant in spring. Whilst it occurs at Shrewsbury, Llynclys and Knockin it has not been found at Ludlow (after repeated visits) or elsewhere. Because of the remarkable isolation of the Shropshire sites, examination of the DNA fingerprints of the plant stands, and on their rusts, has recently been done by a PhD student at University College, Bangor. The results indicate some variation in the genotypes of the plant stands, with much more variability in the rusts.
It would be interesting to note any further records of this plant, and also to see whether it has gall-forming and distorting yellow rust at any other sites in Shropshire. The only known plant in Montgomeryshire (Trueman et. al., 1995) has now disappeared, probably due to grass verge mowing.