Crithmum maritimum – Sea Fennel

18 Oct

Seasons are changing – gradually and gracefully autumn is creeping into summer and will soon take over. Our plant of the month, Crithmum maritimum, has been flowering for months and is now reaching its impressive autumn peak.

C. maritimum is an Israeli wild plant growing in sand and kurkar rocks in the sea-spray belt along the beach. It is also common in beaches around the Mediterranean basin, in the Atlantic shores of Europe and Britain, in the Canary Islands and in the Black Sea shores.

The plant is a rhizomatous shrublet with semi-prostrate stems, growing as a 30-50 cm tall ground cover, about 50 cm wide. Crithmum maritimum is the

Crithmum maritimum in Achziv Beach, Israel. Photo by: Ori Fragman-Sapir

only species in its genus and is part of the Apiaceae family, like parsley, carrots and fennel – hence the common name. Accordingly, it has a compound umbel inflorescence. Though the flowers have a greenish-yellowish hue, the inflorescences are charming in their structure and abundance. Blooming lasts from the end of spring to the beginning of autumn.

Photo by: Roee Kantor

As a plant growing near the water’s edge, it has to survive harsh winds, sand movement, salty spray and strong sun radiation, and as any Mediterranean plant it has to cope with a long and dry summer. Sea fennel survives these conditions well. How is it adapted? Sea fennel has a very deep root, which can reach water sources in dry seasons. In addition it has a creeping rootstock, which acts as a storing organ, enables vegetative reproduction, and its fleshiness delays its drying in case of exposure from the sand. The stems and leaves are succulent, thick and coated with a waxy layer giving them a grayish-green hue. The light hue reflects radiation, the thick protective layer reduces water evaporation, and the waxy texture prevents from sand grains and salt crystals from clinging. The bushy prostrate form is an adaptation to the wind.

In addition to its sturdiness in a harsh habitat, C. maritimum deserves our appreciation for being a medicinal and edible plant. Evidence of its use goes back to the Roman Empire, in the writings of Dioscorides. In later eras, extensive use and over-foraging nearly caused the plant’s extinction from English shores. It has been a protected plant in Great Britain since 1971. The leaves, stems and seeds have essential oils with anti-oxidant, anti-inflammatory and anti-fungal properties, and also Vitamin C. In folklore medicine the plant was used for treatment of problems in the digestive system, the liver, against gallstones, kidney stones and more. Currently the plant is being researched for the food and pharmaceutical industries.

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The recommended edible parts are the fresh young leaves. Their flavor is reminiscent of celery, parsley and fennel with a touch of salt. They can be eaten raw in salads, pickled or cooked – added to omelets and other dishes. Sea fennel is served in restaurants in Greece (kritamo), Italy (critamo, paccasassi), Croatia (motar) and Spain (hinojo marino).

<- Try preparing a “pesto” spread from fresh sea fennel leaves with olive oil, lemon juice, anchovies, garlic, salt and black pepper.

Handsome, sturdy and useful – and certainly a recommended plant for public and private gardening. C. marithimum is suitable for planting in all of Israel. Plant it in full sun and well drained soil. After establishment in the garden soil it can survive without irrigation but will look better with additional watering every two to three weeks in summer. Sea fennel is a low maintenance plant, requiring mainly the removal of spent inflorescences. In extreme cold or frost conditions the fleshy leaves will be damaged but the plant will renew itself.

In the Botanical Gardens, C. maritimum grows in the Mediterranean section – in the “Beatrice” square at the very end and in the Canary Islands’ beds (near the “Guggenheim” pool with bird figures).
The days are remarkably pleasant, there is a lot to see at the Gardens, and Crithmum maritimum also awaits for you here. You are most invited.

By: Shira Carmeli, October 2017

Photo by: Judith Marcus