Garden Burnet, Lesser Burnet, Salad Burnet FR: Grande pimprenelle, Pimprenelle commune des pres GER: Grower Wiesenknopf, Pimpinelle IT: Pimpinella
SP: Pimpinela or Salvastrella BOT: Poterium sanguisorba FAM: Rosaceae ILL: Plate 10, No. 2
The salad burnet was an essential kitchen garden herb in Elizabethan England and was taken to America by the early colonists. Today it is mainly used in France and Italy.
It is native to Europe, growing particularly on calcareous soil, and common in southern England on chalk downs. It is a small perennial with rather characteristic little toothed leaves growing in pairs. The stem grows to about a foot high, and the flower head is a sort of greenish ‘bobble’ feathered with long purple-red stamens. The leaves smell rather like cucumber when crushed. This is a useful plant to be able to recognize and really cannot be confused with anything poisonous. It is also easy to cultivate in the garden as it is hardy and will grow in almost any soil. It is raised from seed or by division of clumps.
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Burnet is a classical ingredient in several butters and sauces, such as ravigote and chivry, in which it is used finely chopped and fresh (although it can be quick frozen). The leaves are also used like borage, to flavour cooling drinks, and are sometimes infused to make ‘burnet vinegar’. As a salad plant burnet is excellent, though unless the leaves are very young they are inclined to be tough. Leaves of burnet are frequently found in the collection of mixed green salad leaves sold in Italian markets. It is part of the charm of such a salad (consisting entirely of green leaves dressed simply with fine olive oil, salt and wine vinegar) that one should come on leaves of varying toughness, flavour and bitterness. great burnet (Sanguisorba officinalis), in Britain a rarer plant of damp meadows, is often confused with the salad burnet. Though somewhat similar in appearance, it is a larger plant growing two feet high, the flower head being a more colourful crimson-purple bobble. This plant used to be called bloodwort and was employed to stanch wounds on the battlefield. It grows over a great deal of Europe and Asia, but is not indigenous to North America. Some old recipes for burnet vinegar involved the use of pounded burnet seed. It is often difficult to tell which burnet is being referred to in these old recipes, and there is confusion with yet another kind of burnet, the burnet saxifrage. burnet saxifrage (Pimpinella saxifraga) is another wild plant of chalky soils but belongs to the parsley family (Umbellifereae). It has white typically umbelliferous flowers and although the lower leaves are vaguely like those of the salad burnet, the leaves further up the stem (as with coriander and other members of this family) are a different shape and much more finely cut.
The burnet saxifrage is known in France as pied de bouc or boucage (in Italy, pie di becco) and is one of the very old cordial herbs. It was used even in ancient Greece. This plant does not grow wild in America, but there is another species of wild burnet found in the eastern states and cultivated in the South. Burnet saxifrage has also a big brother, the greater burnet saxifrage (Pimpinella major) which grows in damp meadows and shady hedgerows in Britain. Great burnet and greater burnet saxifrage should not be confused with the great burdock (Arctium lappa) which has edible roots of which the Japanese gobo is a cultivated form
In the United States the name Alexanders is sometimes used for the indigenous wild angelica.