Sweet cicely

I’ve been doing a little experimenting with sweet cicely (Myrrhis odorata) lately. It’s a plant with a lot of pluses. All parts of the plant have a strong aniseed flavour. It’s native, good for wildlife, tasty, vigorous, perennial and shade tolerant. The big downside for me is that it isn’t very productive. The leaves are available all growing season; they can be used as a seasoning and are traditionally cooked with rhubarb to reduce its acidity, but I don’t find them that great and they are far too hairy for salad use. The young seeds are great, but as they get older they become tough and fibrous. The root is woody and rather unpalatable. How to get more out of sweet cicely?

Image by Rasbak on Wikimedia Commons

My first try was to cut a plant down after picking all the young seeds, in the hope of getting it to flower again. That didn’t work, but at the Wild Harvests Gathering Andy from Fresh Direct told me that if you cut a plant down when it first flowers then it will flower again later, so if you have more than one plant you can spread the season out. Another thing I got to try at the Gathering was juiced sweet cicely, which has quite an oomph and is probably best used as a mixer.

Next up was storing. Seeds picked while young go black like the mature ones, but if put in water they will rehydrate with all their flavour and some of their tenderness. They also freeze well.

I also wondered if the first year root might be nicer than the mature one, so I dug up one of the many seedlings that come up in the wild part of the forest garden. It was straight and clean and peeled like a parsnip. After a few minutes cooking it was tender and tasty. Possibly too strong to want a plateful, but it would go great in curries and winter stews. You could keep an adult plant for seed and grow young plants like an annual (which would give an interesting opportunity for some plant breeding), or just dig up the seedlings that it produces so enthusiastically. I’ll keep you posted on how long into the season the roots stay tender.

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15 thoughts on “Sweet cicely

  1. I moved to Aberdeenshire in 2007 after gardening in North Wales for 24 years and I brought a lot of plants with me, including Sweet Cicely which didn’t like the intense cold winter and perished. I have since discovered it grows everywhere here and the local variety is winter-proof. I have used it for years to sweeten fruit when stewing of for jam making when you can reduce the amount of sugar considerably.

    • In my experience, sweet cicely really isn’t fond of being transplanted, so it might possibly have been that rather than the winter cold that did it. How much sugar do you use in your cicely-powered jams? I don’t like too much sweetness, so I usually use the minimum of sugar I find I can get away with without impairing the keeping qualities of the jam (about half the weight of the fruit). Do you know if the sweet substance in sweet cicely helps with preservation or whether it just adds to sweetness?

      This kind of knowledge-sharing is exactly the sort of thing I started the blog for, so thanks for your comments!

  2. I have been a low sugar jam maker for as long as I found out you could(I am 63) because I don’t like oversweet things but you have to work out how low-sugar you can get to without risking the whole lot starting to ferment . Keeping stored jam very cool is the best advice…not in warm kitchen cupboards. I have also made jam using apple juice concentrate instead of sugar following a small leaflet on sugar-free jam making I picked up maybe 25 years ago at the Royal Show (now defunct) from a Wholefood school exhibit…to make a jam which is not a proper ‘preserve'(ie: it isn’s preserved by sugar from growing moulds) so you make small quantities , fridge them to eat fairly quickly or freeze them for later use. Their approach to sweet cicely was eg: for gooseberry use 3 sprigs to 11b berries and 1/2 pint apple juice concentrate.
    They also substituted angelica for sweet cecily in some recipes and I grew that in Liverpool in the 70s when our children were small , but never tried it in preserves.
    When I made jam as a preserve (ie: with sugar) I used at least that quantity of sweet cecily and fished it out later in the production stage and it works well. I used a traditional jam recipe and reduced the amount of sugar by at least a third each batch to see what worked well.
    I don’t think the plant assists in preserving the jam.
    My other tip is about the amount of liquid to use – ie: as little as possible before cooking the fruit and, as I have often frozen gluts when a freezer was available, when defrosted there is usually liquid to start with so cook up slowly before adding the sugar or whatever else.
    I used to bottle fruit also and think low sugar fruit jams could be done that way in preserving jars in the oven, slowly., although I have never tried it (yet).
    I brought small seedlings from Wales and also grew some from seed but the winter here just outside the Cairngorm National Park was just so very much colder than Snowdonia, which had got steadily warmer and wetter in the years we lived in Wales …we really lost our snow and i suppose the plants changed subtly also (we were at 1000’ in heavy clay).
    Thanks for the blog – it’s very useful, interesting and encouraging.

  3. Sweet Cicily also comes without. Growing up in a district with hairless sweet Cicily, I was rather surprised when I saw a hairy one for the first time not many years ago.
    I you want seeds, please remind me in autumn.

  4. Hi, interesting article. I’ve always browsed on sweet cicely seeds when walking and this year have started to grow a couple plants in the garden. My idea is to try to cultivate bigger seeds. Do you have any advice on pollinating these tiny florets? Also, my plants are just from a garden centre (it doesn’t seem to grow wild in Berkshire as it did in Durham where I grew up) so if you have any particularly large-seeded plant that you are willing to share seeds from I’d be happy to share any results I might have down the line.

    • Hi Rick. I’ve never had any trouble with pollination of sweet cicely so I have never tried doing it myself. If you wanted to do a specific cross you would have to exclude natural pollinators – e.g. with a bag over the flower – and hand pollinate. Seed size isn’t anything I’ve ever thought to select for but I’ll collect a few from any particularly large-seeded strains that I come across.

      • Yeah, I was thinking of the practicalities of manual pollination and it seemed daunting. If you don’t mind sharing large seeds that would be excellent. How do you select for large roots? At least with seeds it’s easy to see which plants are most desirable.

  5. How can you tell the difference between Sweet Cicely and water dropwort? A plant has appeared in my garden but I don,t know what it is. The garden is above a boggy area which makes me worry about it being Water Dropwort which is extremely toxic.

    • I assume you mean hemlock water dropwort (Oenanthe crocata). Some species of water dropwort (Oenanthe) are in fact good to eat, as is Filipendula ulmaria, sometimes known as dropwort. Hemlock water dropwort and sweet cicely are easy to distinguish, for instance because HWD lacks the aniseed smell of all parts of sweet cicely. However they are both in the same family (Apiaceae) which contains lots of lookalikes so sweet cicely isn’t the only thing you have to distinguish it from. In short, there is no substitute for mastering plant identification yourself and you should never eat anything that you aren’t sure you have identified correctly.

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