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Sea Holly { past and present medicinal uses}

Updated on August 1, 2015

Sea Holly



The Sea Holly, Eryngium maritimum, belongs to the Apiaceae family of plants, formerly the Umbelliferae, that group which produces the parsley, fennel, hemlock, and fool's parsley among many other garden favourites such as caraway and celery. Indeed the root is said to taste like the carrot. It is related to that other stalwart of the seaside the Rock Samphire.

" Eryngo to the threat'ning storm,

With dauntless pride uprears.

His azure crest and warrior form,

And points his spears."

According to Edward Step " It is by no means a fragile flower, and preserves its form and appearance throughout the winter, that a good bouquet for that season may be made of this plant ,mingled with Carline Thistle, Sea Lavender, and Seaside grasses. However, it is very tough textured and difficult to gather"

The deep root system helps to bind the sand on the seashore. here we look at the species and its past and present medicinal uses. There are historical observations and noted from past herbalists and physicians. As always we will commence with a description of the subject under review.

Sea holly close to the sea | Source

Description of Sea Holly

The root of this species is perennial and produces a long,creeping,cylindrical tap root , of a whitish colour internally. Externally it is covered with a brown epidermis {top skin} The stem is cylindrical , thick, striated,branched, leafy,smooth and glacous. It attains the height of about a foot {30 cm} or more.

The radical foliage are roundish-or almost heart shaped, stalked and plaited. The upper ones are stalk-less, lobed and palmated, amplexicaule. all are smooth, glacous, ribbed, veined and toothed with sharp spines. The leaves have a waxy texture and produce whitish veins.

The flowers are arranged in dense roundish terminal heads,1.5-2 cm wide {three quarters of an inch} Beneath the flowers are very spiny bracts, which are often tinged blue,reflecting the colour of the flowers.

In its native habitat this is a plant of the seashore throughout Europe, flowering in July and August. Old names include Sea Hulver, Sea Holm and its current name of Sea Holly all allude to the prickly spines. The bracts give the flowers a thistle like appearance. The foliage of this plant is more prickly than the true holly leaf.

The only other British species is the Field Eryngo- Eryngium campestre,which is far less common than our species,however, the medicinal properties are considered to very similar.

Medicinal uses and historical observations.

The root of this plant was once candied and eaten as a 'sweet meat',although it was more in request because of its supposed restorative and stimulant properties, for which it was much celebrated in the days of Shakespeare { Falstaff exclaims " let the sky hail kissing -comfits and snow Eringoes" -Merry Wives of Windsor}.

Eryngo roots were first candied at Colchester, about the beginning of the 17th century by Robert Burton an Apothercary. { Morant's Colchester page 92} . According to Linnaeus, the young shoots prepared like asparagus are " Grateful to the taste and very nutritious and restorative". The roots were said to have a sweet agreeable taste, and an aromatic odour which they yield completely to water. They appear to have very similar qualities to the Angelica root. The aqueous infusion,after it has stood a while,becomes slightly mucilaginous.

The root or rather the bark of the root was the part used in medicine. Dioscorides with other of the ancients, considered it a valuable promoter of the menses when obstructed, and also administered in tormina, liver complaints and other disorders. Boerhaave, esteemed it the principal of the Aperient roots and he usually prescribed it as a diuretic and antiscorbutic {treating scurvy},{ in his work Boerh..Hist. Plant page 144.}

However, by later physicians its Aperient {laxative} properties were esteemed as very gentle and calculating, indeed,only as an adjunct to the aperient decoctions intended for delicate or pregnant females. Ettmuller, Geoffroy and most of the ancient writers,speak of this medicine as a certain though gentle aphrodisiac. It was principally, however, in affections of the chest, that it was employed with reputed success, and even in consumption it was said to relieve the cough and promote easy expectoration.

For that purpose the root was considered to be the most pleasant form, as all the virtues of the root were preserved by sugar. Ettmuller also recommended a conserve of it for the same intentions," And this is worth keeping , as it admits of combination with other medicines".

Culpeper 17th century, recommended that the distilled water made from the whole young plant should be taken for melancholy of the heart,and for fevers .in the time of Queen Elizabeth the first when the roots were candied by sugar they were commonly referred to as 'kissing comfits {sweets to freshen the breath}. However, by the early 19th century it had lost favour with most herbalists and physicians.

The above information is for historical purposes and not meant as a guide to self medication.

Flowers close up


Modern day uses of Sea Holly

Science has proved that the plant contains some antioxidant properties and some anti-bacterial ones. Its main use today seems to be as a diuretic. The root is used as an expectorant and is used in the treatment of coughs and in chronic cases of pulmonary consumption.

It is also used in the treatment of cystitis . Drunk freely it is said to treat diseases of the liver and kidneys. Used externally as a poultice, the dried powdered root is claimed to aid tissue generation. There are known hazards associated with this plant. However, in a paper -Current Research and Journal of Biological Sciences {Maxwell Scientific Organisation 2012} shows that the study of the roots and their properties are on going. The results so far from this study reveals Eryngium maritimum roots contain a considerable amount of Phenolic compounds and had significant antioxidant, antibacterial and anti-fungal activity. Further study is thought to be essential to characterize them as a biological anti-fungal drug,antibiotic and antioxidant,which were beyond the scope of the study.

Some modern day herbals claim it purifies the blood and combats the inflammations that affect the urinary tract. This is said to be combated by a dose of 15 drops of tincture three times a day. However, most recommend it as an expectorant in colds and flu. A decoction of the root is claimed to remove toxins from the body.

If you are trying herbs for the first time always try a small amount first to test your body tolerance.

For the Forager

The young tops were eaten in Sweden like asparagus and Belon,says in his 'Singularities' that the people of Crete eat them as food. The young plant shoots can be eaten when boiled in the manner of asparagus, and, if the roots are roasted or baked are reputed to taste like chestnuts or parsnips.

Sea Holly and the garden

Despite the species being a plant of seashores, wet winter soil in tubs or gardens will cause this plant to die. To acquire the best form and colour a full days sun is often necessary, the plants tend to look dull and tend to flop in partial shade. The advantage of the plant, it being of the seashore, is that it does not mind salt spray and wind.

They can be planted in dry or moist soils,but remember that good drainage is essential. The long tap root of an established plant make them unsuitable for transplanting. great care is needed when trimming or handling these plants because of their sharp spines.

They combine well with pink or purple flowers in a cottage garden. There are many cultivars available to the modern gardener, 'Sapphire Blue is a common favourite. They are good plants for attracting bees.

Bumblebee on Sea Holly



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    • D.A.L. profile image

      Dave 3 years ago from Lancashire north west England


      hello Deb, they are indeed beautiful flowers and make a great addition to a garden either in borders or containers in suitable localities. Best wishes to you.

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 3 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      The flower is absolutely beautiful!

    • D.A.L. profile image

      Dave 3 years ago from Lancashire north west England


      hello Eddy, thank you for your usual kind and appreciated comments and for the vote up. Best wishes to you. Have a good weekend .

    • Eiddwen profile image

      Eiddwen 3 years ago from Wales

      Interesting and very useful my friend. Voted up and wishing you a great weekend.


    • D.A.L. profile image

      Dave 3 years ago from Lancashire north west England


      Hi, thank for your visit and your kind comments which are appreciated. Best wishes to you.

      cat on a soapbox,

      Hi Catherine , You are very welcome, glad you enjoyed. Thank you for your kind comments. Best wishes to you.


      Hi Devika ,Thank you too, for your usual encouraging comments and for the vote up etc, it is very much appreciated. Best wishes to you .

    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 3 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      A beautiful plant and has been helpful from the past to present the many facts here are explained to the point and is a useful hub indeed. Voted up, interesting and useful.

    • cat on a soapbox profile image

      Catherine Tally 3 years ago from Los Angeles

      Hi Dave,

      As always, very interesting and full of great information! This grows very well in our alkaline sandy soils and decomposed granite when established before the hottest weather. Fall is really our best season for planting in inland So. California. I'm impressed w/its many medicinal uses and initially surprised that it is in the same family as the delicate lace-capped flowering plants. However, it all makes sense. Thank you for the in-depth detail.

      My best,

      Cat :)

    • ologsinquito profile image

      ologsinquito 3 years ago from USA

      Great article on yet another medicinal plant that few people know about.