An aromatic perennial native to Europe and naturalized in North America, sweet cicely was once believed to offer protection against bubonic plague. There is evidence of its use in ancient times, too; Roman herbalist Pliny the Elder (23–79 AD) may have mentioned it in his writings about local plants. Like other members of the parsley family, the herb has lacy, fernlike foliage and bears numerous white flowers in umbels that are attractive to bees.
Versatile sweet cicely is both a food and a medicine. In earlier times, the leaves were commonly cooked as a “potherb” with other vegetables, and the entire plant was valued for healing digestive disorders. A related plant also known as sweet cicely, Osmorhiza berteroi, is native to North America and has been used in similar ways.
Common Names: Anise, Sweet Cicely
Description: Perennial, up to 3 feet tall; lacy, fern-like foliage that’s spotted underneath; umbels of white flowers, followed by shiny, dark brown, ridged seeds
Hardiness: To Zone 3
Flowering: June to August
Parts Used: Leaves, seeds, stem, and roots
Range/Habitat: Native to Europe, naturalized in North America; grassy areas and woodland edges on mountains and hillsides
Sweet cicely tastes like a combination of celery and anise. The plant is naturally sweet, and both the leaves and green seeds make an excellent, calorie-free substitute for sugar in fruit or vegetable salads, jams, desserts, syrups, or anywhere else a sweet accent is needed. You can also press the leaves into fish before grilling. The root can be steamed, simmered, or cooked and pureed, just like parsnip. Try adding the grated fresh root to breads and muffins.
The leaves, stems, and seeds of this plant are used to treat intestinal gas, increase appetite, and aid digestion. Sweet cicely tea has long been used as a mild laxative. The boiled root can be used to prepare an antiseptic ointment to help heal bites and wounds. To freshen your breath, simply chew the leaves.
How to grow it
Start from purchased plants, if possible. Sweet cicely seeds require a period of cold and moisture to germinate. To provide this, sow the seeds in a container filled with moist seed-starting medium. Enclose the container inside a plastic bag, then store it in a refrigerator for about 8 weeks. After 8 weeks, move the container to a warm, bright location. Seedlings should appear 2 to 3 weeks later.
Outdoors, plant sweet cicely in moist, well-drained, humus-rich soil and partial shade. Harvest the herb’s leaves as needed throughout the growing season; the leaves are best when they’re fresh and do not dry well. Harvest seed heads when the seeds are still green. Hang the stems upside down to dry; store the dry seeds in an airtight container.