SAMPHIRE.

A friend wrote me to ask about the word samphire, and once I’d copied out enough material to give her an answer I thought I might as well share my research with all and sundry. So:
First off, in case anyone had (like me) the vague idea that “samphire” was an alternate spelling of “sapphire,” it’s not; according to the OED, the latter word has never had a variant in -m-. The forms given are saphyr, saphir, safir(e, (zaphire), safer(e, saffer(e, safyr(e, sapher, saphyre, saphire, saffyr, saffre, safewr, (safour, safur), Sc. sapheir, saphere, saphier, (safure, saffure, -oure, Sc. saufir), sappheir, Sc. saiffer, sapphyr, sapphire. With that out of the way…


The OED’s definitions are:

1. a. The plant Crithmum maritimum (growing on rocks
by the sea), the aromatic saline fleshy leaves of
which are used in pickles. Also called rock samphire.
1545 ELYOT Dict., Crethmos uel Cretamus, an herbe
growing on the sea rockes, whiche we call Sampere.
[…] 1605 SHAKES. Lear IV. vi. 15 Halfe way downe
Hangs one that gathers Sampire: dreadfull Trade. […]
1863 BARING-GOULD Iceland 176 The water has to be
given a flavor by the squeezed berries of the
Samphire.
b. As a name for various other maritime plants, esp.
the glasswort (Salicornia). For GOLDEN, MARSH1,
PRICKLY samphire, see those words.
1703 W. DAMPIER Voy. III. I. 121 The Mould is Sand by
the Sea-side, producing a large sort of Sampier, which
bears a white Flower. […] 1907 Westm. Gaz. 7 Feb.
12/1 The glasswort is still called ‘samphire’ in
Suffolk, and is gathered for purposes of pickling.
2. Cookery. The leaves of samphire, used chiefly as a
pickle.
1624 BOYLE in Lismore Papers (1886) II. 138 A smale
Barricke of Sampier. […] 1747-96 H. GLASSE Cookery
xix. 306 Take the samphire that is green, lay it in a
clean pan.

Waverly Root says in his wonderful Food:

samphire, an English plant known also as sea fennel,
described long ago as “of a spicie taste with a
certaine saltnesse,” not to mention the samphire which
is the seaside purslane, the prickly samphire which is
the sea parsnip, the Jamaica samphire which is
saltwort, or the marsh samphire which is saltwort too,
but a different kind, known also as chicken claws or
glasswort, since it was once used to make glass, a
safer use perhaps than eating it, for John Gerard
wrote that “a great quantitie taken is mischievous and
deadly,” but it did have the advantage that “the smel
and smoke . . . of this herb being burnt drives away
serpents.”

The Diner’s Dictionary, by John Ayto, says:

Samphire is a confusing term, for it refers to two
completely unrelated plants. The original samphire, a
member of the carrot family, grows on coastal rocks —
whence its name, which is a garbling of French (herbe
de) St Pierre
, ‘St Peter’s herb’, an allusion to its
rocky habitat (Peter comes from a Greek word for
‘rock’). Its aromatic leaves have long been used in
pickles, and people ran considerable risks to gather
it (Edgar in King Lear, staring over the imaginary
cliff edge, conjured up the vertiginousness of their
situation: ‘Halfway down hangs one that gathers
samphire, dreadful trade! Methinks he seems no bigger
than his head’). Much more familiar under the name
samphire nowadays, however, is an altogether different
plant, genus Salicornia, which first had the term (in
full marsh samphire) applied to it in the eighteenth
century. It grows in saltmarshes, and has fleshy
succulent leaves that can be eaten as a vegetable,
lightly boiled or steamed (no need to add salt). Its
alternative name, glasswort, refers to the former use
of ash from its burnt leaves in making glass.

And Alan Davidson’s magisterial Penguin Companion to Food
has an entry too long to type in; fortunately, Amazon has
“Search inside” for it. Just search on “samphire” and
click on the second result, “on Page 827,” and then on
the arrow at the right margin to read the rest of the entry.
(Too bad you can’t see the delicate line drawing at the lower
right of the first page.)

Comments

  1. Thanks for the detail. Is this to summon up the polyglot vegetarian?
    The less exciting samphire, the Salicornia, can often be seen in fish shops here in Germany nowadays, but they can’t decide what to call it. The most common is ‘Algen’ (algae). Herbe de St. Pierre was new to me, but I have encountered ‘perce-pierre’.

  2. Dan Milton says:

    There’s a folk-etymologized variant “sandfire”, that I learned in Australia. Some googling shows it’s Maritime Canadian too.

  3. xiaolongnu says:

    It’s mentioned in the lyrics to Orlando Gibbons’ wonderful if somewhat indescribable choral fantasia, “London Street Cries.” The line is “buy a barrel of samphire” and I did always wonder what it was. Evidently, a pickle.

  4. dearieme says:

    “..has fleshy succulent leaves that can be eaten as a vegetable..”
    When we served that at a dinner party, one couple said that they’d never tried it because they didn’t know how to eat it. All you do is clamp your gnashers about a stem and pull it outwards leaving the succulent flesh in your mouth and the stringy, silicaceous bit on your plate.

  5. summon up the polyglot vegetarian?
    As the OED researcher who found the century-plus tofu antedate of Ben Franklin’s said, “All the library researchers seem to enjoy researching ‘food words’.”
    they can’t decide what to call it
    The Wikipedia page has Queller. Is that one of the choices where you are?
    Maritime Canadian too
    Featured here on a page full of Acadian food words.
    how to eat it
    Per the William Logan poem featured on this page linked to by Wikipedia’s glasswort, “stripped hot with the teeth.”

  6. No, Queller is new to me and Grimm’s doesn’t help. I see the advice to strip hot with the teeth, but that would seem to apply to real samphire rather than the form of glasswort I am thinking of (Salicornia): that doesn’t have hard stalky bits (I see Wikipedia says it is not stringy or tough: could it be that only the U.S. variety needs stripping with the teeth?).
    Zander’s dictionary of plant names calls Crithmum Meerfenchel and Salicornia Glasschmalz and Queller. But then the most likely names seem the last to reach the greengrocer’s.
    It took me long enough to find that Nespole are loquats (Turkish sellers using that probably means medlars – although I had better drop this topic here.

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