Sea Holly: a prickly sea creature of distinct beauty

“… let it thunder to the tune of Green Sleeves, hail kissing-comfits and snow eringoes;”

Falstaff: The Merry Wives of Windsor. William Shakespeare

Commonly known as Sea Holly, Eryngium maritimum, is commonly found on the East Coast of the UK.

Like much of our native plant life, Sea Holly has also been historically known by many different names, including Eryngo (as detailed in the Shakespeare quote above), Sea Hulver and Sea Holme.

A particularly striking and beautiful perennial plant, it nestles itself along sand dunes and between dune grasses on the sandy coastline of the England and Wales, but especially along the East Coast and in Cornwall.

How to identify Sea Holly

Growing to a height of up to 60cm, and usually visible between June and September, spiny waxy grey-green leaves protrude from very sturdy wind-hardy stems, with egg-shaped lilac blue flowers sitting on top, which are a haven for coastal bees during the summer months. Whilst it looks like a member of the Thistle family, it is actually part of the Apiaceae family – the family that used to be known as Umbelliferae, based on the umbel-like appearance of the flowers.

Whilst different parts of plants are used medicinally, for Sea Holly, it is the root in Autumn, that is the medicinal part, and these large, long and brittle roots reach down to anchor them securely into the sand and soil below.

Historical uses of Sea Holly

Throughout history, it has always been used as a restorative agent for the reproductive organs, and had a reputation, certainly in Shakespeare’s time, as being an aphrodisiac and led to it being named ‘kissing comfits’. Traditionally, the young shoots were also cooked and eaten as you would asparagus, and the roots were candied.

The 16th Century herbalist, John Gerard, also wrote of its benefit to the reproductive organs and those of elder years, noting:

“If condited, or preserved with sugar, they are exceeding good to be given to old and aged people that are consumed and withered by age, and who want natural moisture”.

Modern use of Eryngium maritimum

With it’s medicinal uses firmly noted in the British Herbal Pharmacopoeia of 1983 as being diuretic and anti-lithic (meaning that it has the ability to break up urinary stones) with specific conditions such as cystitis, urethritis and prostatitis being mentioned; it is not commonly in use in modern herbal practice today, although I firmly intend to explore it’s broader uses – such as respiratory and uterine health – further within my own clinical practice, having been somewhat struck by it’s presence on a recent day trip to the East Coast myself. A native sea treasure that deserves more attention, surely.

Literary sources:

Barker, J. (2001). The Medicinal Flora of Britain and Northwestern Europe. West Wickham: Winter Press.

Culpeper, N (2007) Culpeper’s Colour Herbal. Cippenham: Foulsham.

Grieve, M. (1931) A Modern Herbal. Mineola: Dover Publications.

Hatfield, G. (2007) Hatfield’s Herbal: The Secret History of British Plants. London: Penguin Books.

Wood, M. (2008) The Earthwise Herbal: A Complete Guide to Old World Medicinal Plants. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books.