If you are a lover of kitchen or healing herbs, you have most likely heard of or read about Sweet Cicely, but have never seen it in person or grown it yourself. The truth is that this lovely herb is rarely grown or used in America today, which is why I often refer to it as one of the “forgotten herbs”. That being said, I think it is high time that herbalists and culinary artisans turn their attention back to this delicate beauty and return it to a place of honor in both the culinary and ornamental gardens of today. (Feature image by Amanda Slater, Coventry, England – Sweet Cecily, CC BY-SA 2.0, edited, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4225926)
Like many plants, Sweet Cicely (Myrrhis odorata) has several common names including Smooth Cicely, Sweet Fern, Anise Fern, Candy Plant, Giant Chervil, Sweet Chervil, and Great Chervil. It belongs to the Parsley Family (Apiaceae) and is a native of Central Europe. True Sweet Cicely is sometimes confused with a North American native also known as Sweet Cicely or Anise Root (Osmorhiza longistylis). This confusion is understandable since both plants are members of the Parsley Family and hence, share similar characteristics. That being said, the wild North American version is much smaller and less aromatic than its cultivated cousin.
Cultivated Sweet Cicely is a hardy perennial (to Zone 3) that can reach 2 to 5 feet tall and 3 feet wide. The delicate fern-like leaves are finely divided and lightly downy underneath. When mature, Sweet Cicely bears umbel-shaped clusters of tiny white flowers on long round, hollow stems, which often branch slightly towards the tips.
Once the flowers fade, they are replaced by groups of long green, deeply ribbed seed pods that can reach up to 1 inch in length. As they mature, the two-parted seed pods turn blackish-brown and become very shiny. When fully dry, the single pods split into two long individual seeds.
Growing and Harvesting the Goodness
While Sweet Cicely prefers moist, rich soil and a partially shady environment, it can be grown in full sun if watered regularly. Surprisingly, it does well in clay soils. When grown in areas with very hot summers, Sweet Cicely will perform best if given shade during the late afternoon.
Like many other members of the Parsley Family, Sweet Cicely seeds require a period of cold stratification in order to germinate. The easiest way to accomplish this is by sowing very fresh seed in the fall for spring germination, or in the case of existing plants, through the natural process of self-sowing. Either way, mulching seed beds in cold climates helps prevent seeds from being heaved out of the ground during repeated freeze and thaw cycles. After the seedlings emerge in the spring thin them to stand 2 feet apart. Once mature, Sweet Cicely can be easily propagated by large root cuttings.
As a tender perennial, Sweet Cicely naturally dies back to the ground after a period of freezing weather. But like its cousin fennel, new shoots emerge from the root crown in early spring. Deer, rabbits and other browsers do not usually find this plant attractive.
Image by H. Zell – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,
In perennial flower gardens, the soft, feathery foliage of Sweet Cicely excels at bridging the gap between various textures and colors. When in bloom, the prolific umbels of white flowers light up even the deepest shade and provide a strong, vertical focal point.
In addition to their visual beauty, the lovely flowering umbels of Sweet Cicely also attract a large array of beneficial and pollinating insects to the garden. And like other members of the Parsley Family, parsley worms (the larvae of black swallowtail butterflies) may become a problem. This is because the larva feed only on members of the Parsley Family. If you enjoy attracting and watching butterflies in your garden, sacrificing a bit of foliage in late summer is well worth it.
Sweet Cicely in the Kitchen
When reading through all of the names that have been attributed to Sweet Cicely, the word “sweet” is used repeatedly. Indeed, this wonderfully aromatic herb has a sweet flavor reminiscent of anise and lovage and can be used in many similar ways.
The leaves and young stems of Sweet Cicely should be harvested for fresh use from spring until late fall. The seeds are either collected while still green and used fresh, or collected in a paper bag as they begin to turn brown and threshed when dry. The roots are dug in the fall when the foliage begins to die back and either used fresh or chopped and dried on screens for later use.
All parts of Sweet Cicely are edible and fragrant. Young leaves, tender stems and smaller roots can be added to vegetable and fruit salads, fruit compotes, hot or cold teas, and a myriad of sweet drinks and aperitifs.
The candied stems make nice after dinner breath fresheners and fun swizzle sticks for mixed drinks and fruit punches. The green or black seeds are used to add a unique flavor to spice blends, steamed rice, cream cheese, yogurt, dips, spreads, creamy sauces, dressing, cookies, cakes, sweet breads, stewed fruit, fresh fruit salads, and many other kinds of dishes that benefit from a touch of sweetness.
(Image of Sweet Cicely seed pods by H. Zell – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,
Of course, the flowers are more than just lovely – they are downright tasty, too. Try them as a pretty edible garnish – on the plate, in green and fruit salads, frozen in ice cubes, in fruit drinks and on cakes among others. Those with a sweet tooth will love the candied flower umbels and stems.
Sweet Cicely goes well with fish, poultry, lamb, fresh and roasted vegetables, and eggs. The long taproot is steamed or boiled and eaten like carrots or puree’d and added to mashed potatoes or mixed vegetable puree. Large Sweet Cicely roots are a lovely addition to roasted vegetables and go well with other root crops such as potatoes, carrots, and beets.
When dried, the leaves of Sweet Cicely do retain their sweet flavor. To preserve them, chop and freeze them with a little water in an ice cube tray. Cubes can be removed and stored in airtight freezer bags until needed.
A Sweet Medicinal
As a natural medicinal, Sweet Cicely has traditionally been used to treat the symptoms of bronchitis and other afflictions involving the respiratory system to loosen phlegm and make coughing more productive. For thousands of years Sweet Cicely has been highly regarded as a spring tonic used to strengthen and tonify the bodily systems while removing excess toxins through increased urination. Sweet Cicely is often combined with other, less palatable herbal medicines to sweeten them. This is especially favorable when administering remedies to children.
Used as an aperitif, Sweet Cicely is known to stimulate the appetite and aid in digestion. These actions are beneficial for treating indigestion (dyspepsia), heartburn, nausea, colic, flatulence, gas, bloating, and other disorders caused by poor digestion. A strong decoction made with the seeds or root can also be used externally as a mild antiseptic to prevent infection of minor cuts and wounds.
Besides being medicinal, the fresh or dried root of Sweet Cicely makes a very mild and flavorful tea that can be enjoyed anytime. To prepare, steep 2 to 3 teaspoons of dried, ground root in 1 cup of just-boiled water for ten to fifteen minutes. For medicinal purposes, up to 3 cups can be taken daily as needed.
A decoction of the seeds or root is used externally as a wash, rinse, or moist compress for external conditions. I can also be taken internally (consumed) for use as an expectorant or digestive aid.
Another popular way to preserve the roots and seeds of Sweet Cicely is in alcohol – either as a tincture or as an aperitif. Alcoholic aperitifs, or cordials, are prepared by infusing chopped fresh root and green seed pods in brandy for several weeks to several months. When a small amount is taken before meals, aperitifs stimulate the appetite and increase digestive secretions. Blended with honey, aperitifs also make a very effective cough syrup.
Fresh roots are preferred when preparing tinctures. Chop the roots finely and prepare using a ratio of one part herb to five parts alcohol. The common way to take the tincture is by mouth, 1-4 milliliters at a time, up to three times a day. Tinctures can also be used externally, and are often added to other preparations for application to the skin.
A Word of Caution
At this time, no adverse reactions to this herb have been reported. As a standard precaution, women who are pregnant should use caution before using Sweet Cicely in medicinal doses.
Although Sweet Cicely has been highly regarded as a food, medicine, and seasoning for thousands of years, it does not currently have the United States Food and Drug Administration’s GRAS (Generally Recognized as Safe) status or been approved by the German Commission E. That being said, these two entities have more than likely not even studied this herb as of yet, as its popularity and common use are almost non-existent in the respective countries in which they reside.
For an herb that has largely been forgotten by the majority of the Western world, Sweet Cicely continues to humble us with its grace, beauty and functionality. If you grow herbs or ornamental flowers, you should really take the time to acquaint yourself with this magnificent plant. What awaits the curious and adventurous gardener is the opportunity to fall in love with another green being and help bring what is now just an oddity back to its rightful place among the stars of the herb world.
© 2017 Jill Henderson Feel free to share the link to this article.
Originally published in the Permaculture Activist, 2013
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Jill Henderson is an artist, author, and the editor of Show Me Oz . Her books, The Healing Power of Kitchen Herbs, The Garden Seed Saving Guide and A Journey of Seasons can be found in the Show Me Oz Bookstore. Jill is a contributing author for Acres USA and Llewellyn’s Herbal Almanac and her work has appeared in The Permaculture Activist and The Essential Herbal.
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