Sweet Cicely is an attractive plant that is a striking component of herb gardens and hedgerows.
This early flowering perennial is renowned for its aniseed taste and fragrance. It is in growth and in flower before most other umbellifers are even thinking of it, a really useful precursor to the Ammi genus such as Ammi majus. The plants grow to a height of 90cm (36in), and umbels of tiny white flowers appear from spring to early summer. The fern-like leaves are deeply divided and smell of aniseed when crushed.
Sweet Cicely was formerly a widely cultivated culinary herb, but now only occasionally grown in the herb garden. As a culinary herb it is a valuable sweetener, especially for diabetics and for the many people who are trying to reduce their sugar intake. Used in many savory as well as sweet dishes, it gives a delightful flavour and helps to save almost half the sugar needed.
Sweet Cicely can be used in borders and beds, it flowers early and its ferny foliage, deeply lobed and toothed, set off by the white flowers compliments other flowers beautifully, it also smells divine.
Hardy to about minus 20°C (-4°F), it is one of the first garden herbs to emerge after winter and the last to die down and is available for much of the year.
It is noted for attracting wildlife and is one of the first nectar plants to appear in spring, so it is extremely valuable to the bees and the beekeeper.
Sowing: Sow seeds as soon as possible.
Sweet Cicely seeds like many others germinate easily when they are fresh from the plant. As they dry out the germination inhibitors develop and need a period of cold to help break them down.
They are easiest grown when sown directly outdoors in a seedbed in autumn. The seeds require several months of cold winter temperatures to germinate. Keep a check on the compost to make sure it does not dry out.
Thin the seedlings in the outdoor bed as necessary (eat the thinnings) and transplant the young plants into their final positions in the following spring.
At other times of year in order to germinate successfully, the seeds may need to be stratified. This replicates the sort of conditions found in nature and is easily achieved by mixing the seed with damp sand or vermiculite and leaving in a polythene bag in the fridge for four weeks. After which time seed can be sown as normal into prepared seed or plug trays.
As the seed is so large, sow one seed per cell. Prick out seedlings into individual pots when they are large enough to handle and plant them out in spring after the frosts are over.
Transplant out into garden into a sunny or part shaded position with well drained, humus rich, moisture retentive soil.
Feed and water the seedlings frequently. Use an organic fertiliser especially if the plant is to be eaten. Hardy to about minus 20°C. (-4°F), so there should be no need for protection.
It will self seed freely in ideal conditions, so remove the faded flowers before they set seed if you want to restrict their spread.
As this herb has a very long tap root it does not happily grow in a container but it can be done if you choose a container that will give the root room to grow and use a bark, peat mix of compost. Place it in a semi-shade place and keep well watered throughout the season.
Divide in spring or autumn. Remove the tapering tap root and cut the remaining root into sections with at least one eye per section and replant into prepared plug trays or direct into a prepared site in the garden at a depth of 5cm (2in).
The leaves can be picked in late winter and again in late summer and even in the depths of January in places. Unripe seeds can be collected when green, ripe ones when brown. Dig up roots for drying in the autumn when the plant has died down.
The seeds are long, first green turning black on ripening. The foliage and seed do not dry or freeze well but the seeds store well in a dry container.
Sweet Cicely used to be grown in kitchen gardens near the door. All parts of the plant can be used: leaves, roots, flowers and seed. The flavour is sweet and aniseed like.
The leaves can be cooked like spinach, added to soups, omelettes and custards or used fresh in salads. The crisp stalks make a good substitute for celery after light cooking.
The roots can be eaten raw in salads or boiled and eaten like parsnips. They also make a good wine.
The seeds are used as flavouring. Toss unripe seeds into fruit salads or chop and add to ice-cream, cream or custard they have a sweet flavour and a nutty texture. Flower buds are edible and can be used as decoration.
Use seeds instead of cloves in apple pies, or grind them and add them to spice mixtures. When the plant is setting seed the young tender seed pods can be eaten like sweets. In times past children used to eat the ripe seed pods as a snack on the long walk to school.
Sweet Cicely leaves can be chopped finely and added to salads, dressings and omelettes. Add to soups, stews and to boiling water when cooking cabbage.
They can be added to cream for a sweeter less fatty taste and are excellent when cooked with tart fruits to cut down the acidity. This works well with rhubarb, red currants and gooseberries. If you use it in cooking, reduce the amount of sugar in the recipe. It is a valuable sweetener, especially for diabetics and for the many people who are trying to reduce their sugar intake. It gives a delightful flavour and helps to save almost half the sugar needed.
Sweet Cicely has been used in medicine for centuries, all parts of this herb were used.
As Culpeper wrote “It is so harmless you cannot use it amiss.”
It is good for the digestive system and a wonderful tonic herb, it will lift the spirits and banish gloomy thoughts. The volatile oils and flavonoids in the plant are antiseptic and will purify the blood, act as a carminative and improve appetite.
Culpeper and Gerard both agree that the roots, when boiled and then dressed with oil and vinegar are
“…very good for old people that are dull and without courage; it rejoiceth and comforteth the heart and increaseth their lust and strength.”
The ripe seeds can be chewed as an aid to digestion and a tea made from the chopped leaves is said to soothe the stomach. A tisane can be made with 1 tsp of dried (1tbsp fresh) leaves to 1 cup of boiling water. Steep the leaves in the water for 10 to 15 minutes then strain and drink a small cup three times a day.
Sweet Cicely is famously used by Carthusian monks to make the liqueur, Chartreuse. Like its relatives anise, fennel, and caraway, it can also be used to flavour Akvavi. In Scandinavian countries it traditionally associated with Christmas and other celebrations. While claims for the medicinal properties of the drink may be rather inflated, aquavit is popularly believed to ease the digestion of rich foods.
The leaves and the seed make good polishes for wood. Simply rub the leaves over the wood and then rub the wood with a clean cloth to remove any greenness. It is particularly good on oak panels, giving a lovely glossy finish and an aromatic smell. The seeds when pounded into a paste were used to make a sweet-smelling furniture polish.
Both the leaves and the seed pods, which are edible, liberate the sweet smell of aniseed when crushed between the fingers. The taste of aniseed is due to the chemical anethole which is synthesised in the plant. Anethole is the olfactory component of Oil of Aniseed, which is present in other members of the Carrot family. It is obtained from Anise, Pimpinella Anisum; it also contributes to the flavour of Tarragon and of Fennel.
Myrrhis odorata is the sole species in the genus Myrrhis. It belongs to the family Apiaceae.
The Latin name for the plant comes from the Greek ‘myrrhis’ meaning ‘smelling of myrrh’, with the specific name ‘odorata’ deriving from the Latin word ‘odorus’ meaning ‘fragrant’. Several of the common names of the plant reflect this:
Greater Chervil, Roman Plant, Cow Chervil, Smooth Cicely, Sweet Fern, British Myrrh, Shepherd’s Needle, Sweets, Fern-Leaved Chervil, Wild Myrrh, Sweet Cus, Sweet Hemlock, Beaked Parsley.
The Greeks called Sweet Cicely ‘seselis or ‘seseli’. It is logical to suppose that ‘Cicely’ was derived from them, ‘sweet’ coming from its flavour.
Native to Central Europe, it is found in and around woodlands, often in clearings as well as grassy banks and verges as well as cultivated areas. Beware of similar looking umbellifers which have darker green fern-like leaves, do not smell of aniseed, and which may be extremely poisonous.
Note: Sweet Cicely (Myrrhis odorata) is native to the British Isles, and should not be confused with the herbs of the Osmorhiza family which are native to Asia and the American continent. It actually looks a little like cow parsley or Queen Anne’s Lace about which there is also confusion in names between Britain and the US
The leaves have a slight resemblance in shape and form to some other members of the Carrot Family, possibly poisonous ones. But those of Sweet Cicely are a lighter green, and smell of aniseed. Both stems and seed pods are covered in thin hairs reminiscent of those on Stinging Nettles, but they don't sting.
Smells of aniseed when crushed, as does Fennel, but Sweet Cicely has fern-like leaves whereas those of Fennel are thin and thread-like.
Sweet Cicely can be found growing wild but because of its similarity to a number of other plants, some of which, like hemlock can be extremely poisonous, in the wild it is best left alone. 'Fortune favours the brave' is a lovely saying, but it's not something to be applied to foraging.
- Additional Information
Average Seed Count 10 Seeds Common Name Garden Myrh, Anise Other Common Names Roman Plant, Sweet Braken, Sweet Fern. Family Apiaceae Genus Myrrhis Species odorata Hardiness Hardy Perennial Flowers White umbels. Natural Flower Time May to June. Height 90cm. (36cm) Spread 60 to 90cm (24 to 36in) Position Full sun or dappled shade. Soil Moisture retentive soil. Time to Sow Sow seeds as soon as possible. Notes Hardy to about minus 20°C (-4°F)