I want to talk to you about glasswort. Have you ever heard of it? To be honest, I hadn’t! I hear about it, I see it on cooking shows, but I’ve never tasted it… And for good reason: I don’t live near the sea!
But I’ve just made a discovery… Glasswort can be grown in pots! So, while this article is a portrait of a wild plant to be picked, I’d like to take this opportunity to ask you a question: have you ever grown glasswort in a pot? I’m definitely going to try and plant some this autumn so I can have some next year!
Underneath its cactus-like appearance, the glasswort is a strange plant. There are some thirty annual species of this genus on the coasts of North America and France, all of which are edible. It grows in salt marshes and on sea shores, sometimes so close to the salt water that it covers the entire plant at high tide. Full sun, tide permitting, is necessary for this fat plant.
Let’s recap: it’s an oily plant that thrives in a humid environment, needs full sun and survives very well when flooded with icy (in Canada, anyway) and salty water… It’s all a bit counter-intuitive!
And to think that my Venus flytrap dies if the water comes from the tap…!
Harvesting in Nature
This plant is harvested in spring, while its stems are still tender. It is not endangered in Quebec, although populations are declining due to poor harvesting practices, as observed by pickers.
It should be noted that in Europe, the various species of glasswort are protected and are subject to harvesting restrictions in certain regions. Make sure you know what you’re doing before heading out with your rubber boots to fill your buckets!
As glasswort is an annual, it’s important to leave a few plants in the field to mature and set seed. This is essential to ensure that, the following year, the shores will still be supplied with this pretty plant. Commercial harvesting is increasingly threatening edible shore plants, which are gaining in popularity in restaurants. Unfortunately, the pickers whose livelihood it is sometimes have little, if any, scruples about picking it all up. As it’s not endangered, there are no regulations preventing them from doing so, so I urge you, if you try this harvest, to pick glasswort with respect.
And this is the article’s big BUT: while the plant itself is not protected in Quebec, the environment is. Make sure you pick in public places or have the owner’s permission. Quebec’s riverbanks are protected in many places, as are certain forest environments.
For example, in 2023, the Saguenay-St. Lawrence Marine Park will have a protected area of 1,245 km² (potentially quadrupling over the next few years), including tidal zones where glasswort grows. You’re not allowed to pick up anything in this zone, not even a rock!
You’ll understand that this very touristy zone aims to protect not only the whales that make their way through the St. Lawrence Estuary, but also all the other plant and animal species in the region. So if your next vacation is in Tadoussac, don’t even think about it: the glasswort stays right here!
Grow It at Home
Since I don’t intend to drive 10 hours for a small basket of glasswort, I’m going to try growing it at home. I love herbs and this one, which has a salty taste, promises to be really interesting (if it grows). According to my research, it seems quite easy to grow: full sun, generous and regular watering with… you guessed it: salt water!
This “halophilic” plant (which lives in a salty environment) can’t be deprived of this resource (especially if you want to enjoy its iodized taste). So add one teaspoon (5 ml) of salt per liter of water. Its substrate should be well drained (after all, it lives in sandy environments), but it should remain moist, especially when the plant is young.
As it’s the young shoots that are of culinary interest, you won’t have to worry about them once they’re grown – it’ll be your stomach’s turn to do the work! However, if you want to keep it around to impress the neighbors with your almost-sea plant, simply reduce the watering a little.
It can be grown in the ground or in pots, but I recommend the latter to avoid salting the soil in your garden: your other plants may not appreciate it!
Note also that there are perennial varieties that are not eaten because of their bitter taste. Although they are not toxic, you may be disappointed: make sure you buy the right seeds.
Why am I telling you all this in autumn? Because it’s sowing time! This plant grows very early in the spring and, in nature, its seeds are dispersed in autumn, so you can plant them then. It would also be possible to plant them very early in the spring, in March… if you plan on working the soil with mittens on.
As I said, I’ve never had the chance to taste this plant. My excursions on the Côte-Nord region have all taken place in the middle of a marine park (a protected area), and I’ve never been to the Gaspé Peninsula. But I did my research for you!
The very young shoots are crunchy and can be eaten fresh, in salads. Older specimens can also be cooked and used as a vegetable side dish. Cooking takes the bitterness out of these late-spring stalks, and with fish or seafood, you’ll keep with the theme. Be careful, however, not to salt them as you would other vegetables!
You can also use samphire as an herb, or pickle it like a gherkin. There are so many uses! Have fun with this ingredient and, above all, tell me in the comments how you cook it! I’m already getting ideas for my spring 2024 harvest!
I doubt you’ll ever decide to cook glasswort as anything other than a bean or a pickle, but I’ve learned in the course of writing this article that there are many traditional non-culinary uses for this wonderful plant. Did you know that this plant has been used to make… glass? In fact, its name was inspired by this slice of history.
Burning glasswort produces vegetable soda, a key element in the work of ancient glassmakers. In the 14th century, glassmakers were even said to have set up shop near places where glasswort abounded, to ensure a supply of raw material.
Vegetable soda, also known as sodium carbonate, is not the same as sodium bicarbonate, even if its uses are similar. In the case of vegetable soda, that is, the ashes of certain plants such as glasswort, they are used mainly in cleaning products. Glasswort is used not only to make glass, but also… soap!
Studies are even underway to transform this plant into biofuel. You have to admit, it’s fascinating what grows in Mother Nature’s garden!