Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Sandfire, Pickles & Mouse Nipples - Salicornia Or Sarcocornia

    A few days ago, while birding on Green Point in Phippsburg, I photographed this stunning plant. The top photo is the same plant, just not as mature as the one on the bottom. It was growing on a sandbar along the shore on what would be considered tidal marsh amongst eel grasses and Sea Lavender. I just thought it was pretty, but it turns out to be a complex and useful plant. Put it this way, if you ever wind up on the moon or a desert island with me, you'll thank your lucky stars. 
      Sarcocornia is a subfamily member of the genus Salicornia, a large family of salt-tolerant succulents. The taxonomy of this family is difficult and controversial because the morphology of the plants is very similar. You've really got to be a botanist to sort it out.  Though many authors disagree, the plants are generally separated based on the flower structure and whether they are perennial or shrubby, versus annual. The botanical name has changed several times because the the separation of Sarcocornia from Salicornia was not generally accepted until after the start of the 21st century. In 2001, it was called Salicornia perennis; in 2004 it was called Arthrocnemun perenne, and in 2006 it was called Sarcocornia perennis. Next year? Who knows! I for one, can hardly stand the drama. Don't you just hate it when botanists fight? It's like that show Jersey Shore for God's sake! I only bothered to tell you because all that made looking up about this pretty, red plant very difficult. I've saved you a load of work there. See? You're already glad you are on the desert island with me; I can tell. 
      The genus names come from the Greek, 'sarco,' meaning flesh, and the Latin, 'cornia,' meaning horn, and 'sal,' which is salt. That's easy enough to remember, no? Thankfully, the common names are delightful and memorable. Called Saltwort, Glasswort,  Samphire, Sandfire, Sea Beans, Chickenclaws and Mouse Nipples, it's edible. The name "Glasswort," comes from the soda-rich ashes left after burning the plant which were used in early glass and soap making. According to some references, it's also being considered as a biofuel as the seeds are high in oils. Salicornia not only grows on salt marshes, but grows in deserts and can be irrigated with salt water. It is also used as fodder for cattle, sheep and goats and in Sri Lanka, it is used to feed donkeys. What could be more useful than that?
     They are also edible and a common food stuff in Brittany where they pickle it. The vernacular name ‘samphire’ comes from ‘sampere,’ an early English name from the French ‘herbe de St.Pierre.’ I thought 'Sandfire' came from the flaming red that the aging plant turns in the fall, but it turns out that's an English mangling of the French. Go figure. On this continent, in the Maritime provences of Canada it is steamed or sauteed, then doused with butter. It's usually served with salmon, though I did find a pairing with lamb. I haven't tried it, but it's reported to be very salty, thus, the name "Saltwort." The Acadians named it after mouse nipples because of the little, dotlike balls that cluster on the stem. "Chickenclaws" also comes from the appearance, "Sea Beans" from what it looks like cooked - little, green beans. Salicornias are harvested when the plants are young and can be eaten fresh. Inside the flesh is a stringy center. It's cooked with the roots on, then pulled through the teeth leaving behind the core.
     I hope you have stayed awake and taken all of this in. Your life could one day depend on it. The next time you are out on a salt marsh, look for this beautiful, versatile plant. If you get stranded out there or on a desert island with me, you'll be able to feed, wash, warm and save your ass with one plant.


  1. Two nice posts. I eat glasswort at the island. I do a lot of foraging there. I eat it in salads, uncooked. It's juicy and good. As to Flickers, we named one of our dogs Flicka and so I get confused too. I think in our town they were called "yarfuls", now that I think about it. On our way to walk on the Appalachian trial, just north of Hanover, we drove through a migrating group of them--they were everywhere along the roadside. I LOVE your opening photo of the wave. How did you get that??????? Where were you standing? Is that Sequin in the background. It is lovely lovely lovely. Your friend Jo

  2. Thanks, Jo. I got that banner shot with my usual strategy: I stood there and waited until a wave broke just right. That's Head beach with the end of Hermit Island on the right. Where do you suppose "yarful" comes from? Does that mean if you have a lot of them on the lawn you have a "yarful?"

  3. Don't know where you find the time to do all that you do, but it is always fun to read THE BACK STORY which contains so many beautiful photos and interesting facts. I have also had a lot of today's spiders appear and remember finding them as a child all over my parents garden and was told that they were garden spiders. This is the first year that I have noticed them in my Maine garden and doorway so I was happy to see them featured on your blog. Thanks.

  4. What brilliant hues you have captured in the Sarcocornia! Simply lovely! Now, I wonder, knowing how much you enjoy pickles...will pickled Sarcocornia be served the next time we visit?

  5. HG quite possibly. Do you think it would be good with lobster?

  6. Mouse nipples? Beautiful plant in any event.

    Heads up! A beautiful juvenile male Rose-breasted Grosbeak was at our feeding station this morning. Might be heading your way.


  7. Great photos of the Sarcocornia as it is being called here now. Your history of the names and uses of the plants was very interesting. It was also used on the coast of England where (many years ago!) children were made to climb down the cliffs for it and apparently Shakespeare talks about this!! Have a look at my Page on Saltmarsh plants for more of the ones we see out here.

  8. Thanks, Mick. Will look at your info as more on any subject naturel is great! Thanks for the view and comment and compliments. Try the mousenipples sometime. It's guite good if you are into salt.