#80 Samphire








Samphire, Crithmum maritimum, is a salt-tolerant succulent with many branches, thick, fleshy leaves, and small crowns of flowers which grows widely on the salt-splashed rocks of the coasts of southern England and all around the Mediterranean. The name is widely said to be a corruption of the French for “St. Peter’s herb”; since Peter is another name for rock, it means simply “a plant that grows on a rock” (Watts 344).  According to the blog for the Cloisters Garden website, it has a history of “culinary and medicinal use that extends from Greek antiquity to the present day.”[1] Although it can be cooked and eaten with lemon and butter, it was most popular pickled for use in salads and meat sauces, particularly before the 1700’s, as noted by the website for Wheadons Gin, which still uses it as an aromatic addition to its gin.[2]  Rock Samphire is to be distinguished from Marsh Sampfire (Salicornia species,  aka Glasswort) which, having a milder taste, is currently a popular addition to salads.[3]


Historically, samphire is most infamous for the dangerous methods by which it was harvested. Folkard notes that it used to be gathered from the cliffs “by men suspended from the summit by a rope” (274), and the Wheadon’s Gin website suggests it was “often children [who] were dangled by their legs from a rope tied around their ankles and they picked it from the cliff faces.” Several sources mention samphire being gathered around Dover (Watts 343), and that association is preserved in the single major allusion to samphire in British literature, in King Lear where Edgar deceives his father Gloucester, now blind, that they are climbing the cliffs of Dover, in order to convince him that he has committed suicide and miraculously survived. Edgar’s imaginative dramatization of the ascent includes a view of those who risks their lives to gather the herb: “Half-way down/ Hangs one that gathers Samphire, dreadful trade! Methinks he seems no bigger than his head” (Iv, vi, ll. 13-5.)


For Woolf, samphire is closely associated with her childhood visits to Cornwall. In March 1921 on the last day of a visit to Cornwall, she captures a happy scene in her diary: “We’ve been lying on the Gurnard’s Head, on beds of samphire among grey rocks with buttons of yellow lichen on them” (D2 105). Some years later, she writes Vita Sackville-West about her happiness at Monk’s House, wedged between the giant granite blocks of her reading -- Proust, Henry James, Dostoevsky: “I can compare my happiness to samphire, a small pink plant I picked as a child in Cornwall”  (L3 521).[4]  Samphire also has a presence at this country home in Sussex.  When she and Leonard first bought Monk’s House, in July of 1919, she describes, among other pleasing features, “the lawn smoothly rolled, & rising in a bank, sheltered from winds too, a refuge in cold & storm; & a large earthen pot holds sway where the path strikes off, crowned with a tuft of purple samphire” (D1 286).[5]  Twenty-five years later, again at Monk’s House, she recorded her conversation with Lavender, an ex-burglar who: “amused me with his stories of making cigarettes & gathering samphire” (D4 240).


The one time Woolf refers to samphire in her fiction rather than life-writing, the context is Shakespearean instead of Cornish or Sussex-based. When Orlando arrives back in eighteenth-century England as a woman, her first sight of her homeland is the “chalky cliffs,” presumably of Dover in Kent, where “the samphire gatherers, hanging half-way down the cliff, were plain to the naked eye” (O 120, 121). That these samphire hunters are related to those in King Lear is suggested by the fact that the next British landmark she spies is the great, white, marble dome of St. Paul’s in London, which reminds her of “that earliest, most persistent memory -- the man with the big forehead in Twitchert’s sitting-room, the man who sat writing” (121). This figure first appears during Queen Elizabeth’s visit when he is identified by the book’s mock Index as Shakespeare (17, 245).  The memory of his “amazing eyes” (59) returns to haunt Orlando three times: first during a long meditation on memory, after which he resolves to become a great poet (59); again as she returns to England (121), and last after she wins a prize for the finally published “Oak Tree” and is publically recognized as a poet (229). The sight of the samphire hunters climbing up and down the cliff reminds Orlando of the memory of her lost love Sasha “scampering up and down within her,” and so her fictional reference to samphire imitates her own ladder of memory into the past.




[3] See https://www.bbcgoodfood.com/glossary/samphire-glossary

Accessed January 23, 2022.   “Though there are two types of samphire – marsh and rock – only marsh samphire is widely available. Marsh samphire has vibrant green stalks, similar to baby asparagus, with a distinctively crisp and salty taste. It can be used raw in salad, though it tends to be very salty, so is more often boiled or steamed for a few minutes. Rock samphire has a rather unpleasant smell and flavour. Occasionally you may also find jars of pickled samphire in gourmet shops.”  

            Also see this blog from a Scottish forager: https://gallowaywildfoods.com/july-marsh-samphire/Accessed January 23, 2022.


[4] Despite Woolf’s description of samphire as “pink” and later as purple, all verbal and visual depictions I have found of rock samphire present the flowers as a greeny-yellow. Photos of marsh samphire, however, occasionally show a purple or pinkish hue. See https://l450v.alamy.com/450v/w602d1/sea-lavenderlimonium-vulgare-growing-with-samphire-salicornia-europaeaon-the-seashore-in-chichester-harbourwest-wittering-west-sussexenglanduk-w602d1.jpg or https://media.gettyimages.com/photos/salicornia-salicornia-depressa-in-autumn-on-saltmarsh-at-holkham-nnr-picture-id1189404413?s=612x612. Both accessed January 25, 2022.


[5] A photo of Virginia posed rather uncomfortably with Pinka in front of this pot in 1931 shows that the samphire on the millstone terrace had been replaced by what might be begonias. See Zoob, p. 61, or on-line: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/multimedia/archive/02701/woolfpot_2701638k.jpg

Accessed January 24, 2022.


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Welcome to the Virginia Woolf Herbarium.  For many years I have been researching and writing about Virginia Woolf and parks, gardens, and fl...