The samphire mentioned by Shakespeare is probably rock samphire, Crithmum maritimum, a coastal species which grows on the southern and western coasts of Great Britain and Ireland, as well as on the coasts of Mediterranean and western Europe, the Canary Islands, North Africa, and the Black Sea. It is a member of the Apiaceae (aka Umbelliferae), also known as the carrot or parsley family. Other members of the family are Queen Annes’ lace (Daucus carota), fennel (Foeniculum vulgare), and sea holly (Eryngium spp.). The plant grows one foot wide and tall and has fleshy, aromatic, divided pale green leaves and small white flowers which open from June to August. A perennial, the plants prefer full sun, well-drained soil, and can tolerate infertile, and very alkaline and saline soils. They are hardy in USDA zones 5-9.
Shakespeare refers to the difficulty of collecting samphire in King Lear (act iv, sc. 6, 14). Edgar, oldest son of the nobleman Gloucester and disguised as a peasant, pretends to lead his father to a cliff in Dover and says:
Hangs one that gathers samphire—dreadful trade!
In Shakespeare’s time the harvesting of samphire for culinary purposes was well-known. Nicholas Culpepper, English botanist and herblist writing in the mid-seventh centruy writes that samphire leaves had a “pleasant, hot and spicy taste”. The stems, leaves, and seed pods may be pickled but is no longer popular. The common name, samphire, is proabably a corrption of “St. Peter” resulting from the fact that it grows on the rocks and in Italian was called herba di San Pietro because anything asociated with rocks was also associated with St. Peter.
Photo: “Crithmum maritimum 20080801 105452 Getxo 43p3489N 3p0148W r” by Jon Peli Oleaga – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons