Written by Julia Russell – Herb Society member and practising herbalist (AMH member)
Sweet Cicely (Myrrhis odorata) is currently flowering along hedgerows, byways, field margins and on river banks in the Northern British Isles.
A word of caution if foraging for this plant, as it is a member of the carrot family (Apiaceae); a family including some of our tastiest spices, coriander and caraway, and also poisonous plants like hemlock and giant hogweed.
All Apiaceae (formerly Umbelliferaceae) have 5-petalled flowers arranged in umbels (little umbrella shapes) which form larger compound umbels. Sweet Cicely’s other identifying features are its fresh green 2-3 pinnate, downy-soft, feathery leaves and small stem hairs creating a velvety feel. It has distinct whitish flecks or blotches on most (not all) leaves, but it’s most distinguishing feature is the aromatic, aniseed taste of the plant.
Often growing alongside its relative Cow Parsley, it is easy to see that Sweet Cicely has the more compact compound umbel (5cm across), a shorter squatter growth (60cm-1.5m) and longer ridged seeds (15-25mm) which have a stronger aniseed flavour than the leaves. The seeds are lovely to nibble in the green; later they’ll turn dark brown.
The flavour of sweet cicely lends itself to making of aperitifs and digestifs using the leaves or seeds for promoting appetite and supporting the whole digestion. It has also been used to help relieve coughs.
The soft textured raw leaves avail themselves to use in vegetable and fruit salads or dips. They can also be cooked into soups, stews, omelettes. The natural sweetness of the leaves has been used to reduce sugar in recipes, especially when stewing tart fruits.
L-R: Sweet Cicely leaf, Sweet Cicely used in a fruit salad, Sweet Cicely with fruits
To cultivate this tasty perennial herb, propagate by division or from seed, the latter best planted in autumn as it requires a period of cold to germinate. It usually prefers partial shade and moist, but well-drained soils. Suited to a kitchen garden, allotment, ornamental border or a container, it provides nectar for bees.
Should you wish to have more leafy growth, remove some flower shoots before flowering, although not all if you want to encourage bees, are planning to gather some seeds, or wish the plant to spread by self-seeding.
Julia has taught many aspects of herbs and wild food, and lead regular herbal and wild food foraging walks. To find out more about her visit her website www.juliarussellherbalist.co.uk