SWEET CICELY (Myrrhis odorata)
Sweet cicely is a handsome, slow growing perennial herb. It's very
fragrant with an anise-like flavor and grows to be 2-5 feet high, depending
upon the site in which it is growing. It has large lacy leaves that
are covered with a fine down. Sweet cicely blooms in June with tiny
white flowers in two-inch clusters, which are compressed in umbrells
with five to ten others. The dark brown or black shiny seeds that form
later are about one inch long and have a licorice flavor
Sweet cicely is one of those herbs that doesn't seem to have a personality
of its own. It is often described as resembling other plants-for example,
chervil, hemlock and anise. In fact, it is sometimes called giant chervil,
and the leaf does look somewhat like a much-magnified chervil leaf.
The fragrance is like anise and it looks similar to hemlock (the water
hemlock that grows in wet locations-not the tree). Please note that
water hemlock does NOT smell like anise and, in fact, is poisonous-just
Whenever you research an herb it seems references are made to Gerard.
I wondered, as you may have, who this man was anyway. Well, he was a
respected plantsman of 16th century England. Gerard created his first
botanic garden at Cambridge in 1588 and published the first Herball
in 1597, which was required reading for students of botany for over
200 years. Before Gerard, plants were studied solely for the ways they
related to medicine and other such practical purposes. Gerard appealed
to a different and wider audience and drew attention to a plant's food
and decorative value.
Sweet cicely has been used in cooking and medicine since early Roman
times. Today it is listed as an aromatic, stomachic, carminative, and
expectorant. In the 16th century, Gerard called the leaves "exceeding
good, wholesome, and pleasant among other sallad herbs, giving the taste
of Annise-seed unto the rest." He also pointed out the seeds were
excellent salad ingredients, "dressed as the cunning Cooke knoweth
how." He recommended serving the leaves boiled and dressed with
oil and vinegar. He considered this dish "very good for old people
that are dull and without courage." Culpepper, a 17th century plantsman,
said, "It is so harmless you cannot use it amiss."
Today, the herb may be called the "sugar-saver" herb. It
can be used generously on tart fruit to cut down the acidity and the
need for sugar. It is said the flavor is between that of celery and
anise. You can chop the leaves and use with fruits such as rhubarb,
gooseberries or currants. Use in green salads, on potatoes, in omelets,
fresh fruit salads and fruit drinks. For indigestion, you could chew
on the ripe seeds or make a tea of chopped leaves and drink it hot.
Leaves can be pressed into fish before grilling.
Sweet cicely is difficult to grow from seed, as the seeds require a
process of freezing and thawing before they will germinate. It's best
to buy a plant or get one from a friend. It grows best in semi-shaded,
rich soil with adequate moisture. Sweet cicely makes a fine addition
to your herb garden or to your flowerbed.