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Introduction to samphires - AMLR publication (2013)

Samphires, or glassworts, are succulent herbs and small shrubs belonging to the tribe Salicornieae within the family Chenopodiaceae. These unusual looking plants have jointed (articulated) branches that look like a string of beads. These articles function as both leaf and stem, providing the structure of the plant, the location for photosynthesis and a large water-holding capacity. The latter function allows these plants to live in very dry locations, or in tidally inundated areas that are “physiologically dry” because all the water present is saline. The name “samphire” is a corruption of “Saint Pierre” or Saint Peter, the patron saint of fishers, and reflects the preference of these plants and their overseas relatives for growing near the coast, although in Australia they are frequently found inland, adjacent to our extensive salt lakes. Fishers pickled the low-growing, sward forming species and samphire pickle (“sampha”, “sampkin” or “sea pickle”) is still commonly served in European and British pubs. The ash from burnt samphire is very alkaline and was used in glassmaking (hence “glasswort”) and soap making in Medieval times. This use continued in less prosperous communities right up until the 1800s. In the early days of South Australian settlement a glassworker operated in the saltmarshes south of Saint Kilda. Small pieces of glass slag can still be found in the saltmarshes between St Kilda and the Little Para River.