In former times the sweet cicely root was more commonly used than the leaf. It was a popular pot herb, being boiled with other root vegetables and eaten with vinegar and oil. Sweet cicely root was believed to prevent infection.
Sweet cicely, myrrhis odorata, is a lovely fragrant perennial herb growing up to 2-3 ft (61 -91 cm) high. The plant can sometimes be found growing wild on hillsides and high pasture land in northern climates. The soft, lacy leaves are covered with a whitish down on the underside and when crushed have a sweet smell somewhat resembling anise. Early in the season creamy white flowers appear, growing in flat-topped umbels at the top of the stems. The flowers are quickly followed by the characteristic long green seed pods. As the seeds ripen the seed pod turns black. Sweet cicely is an attractive plant to grow in the border, as its leaves appear so early in the year and continue until late autumn.
In the kitchen, sweet cicely is a very useful herb. Chopped fresh leaves or the spicy green seeds add a delightful flavour to salads and salad dressings, any root vegetable and to cabbage. The roots can be sliced, cooked and eaten as a vegetable or grated and eaten raw in salad. The taste is much stronger in the roots than in the leaves and is similar to that of Florence fennel. Because of its ability to cut the acidity when cooked with tart fruits, less sugar is needed and a more healthy diet can be followed. Sweet cicely can be added to the syrup for fruit salads and to fruit drinks. It is a very mild herb and can be used generously wherever a slight anise flavour is required and it is at its best when mixed with other herbs in a dish.
Sweet cicely will grow in ordinary well-drained garden soil in a sunny or slightly shaded spot. It can be propagated either by seed or by division of roots. Sow seed directly into its flowering position in March or April and when large enough thin the seedlings to a handspan apart. Once the plants are established they will self-sow quite readily. The roots of two-year-old plants can be divided in the spring or autumn: plants older than two years are difficult to dig up without damaging the long tap root.
The leaves, roots and seeds are the parts of the herb which are used in the home and to ensure a good supply of fragrant leaves the flowers should be cut off as soon as they appear, unless the seeds are required. The leaves can be gathered for drying any time between February and November and are dried and stored in the usual way. The roots can be dug for eating or drying in the autumn. If some of the flower- heads are left on the plant the seeds can be picked while green for immediate use or left until they have turned black, when they can be gathered and dried in the usual way.
Sweet cicely reduces the need for sugar when added to foods and so can be helpful to diabetics. It also helps the digestion when taken with meals as a tea.
* To make the tea: Pour 1 cupful of boiling water on to 3 teaspoons of chopped fresh or dried sweet cicely leaves. Leave to in fuse for 10 minutes before straining. Drink the tea warm whenever required and make it fresh each time. For the digestion sweet cicely tea can be taken 30 minutes before a meal.
The tea is also said to cure flatulence and for this distressing complaint a small glassful made from sweet cicely seeds can be drunk hot after meals.
* To make the seed tea: Put 1 teaspoon of crushed seed in an enamel pan and add I cup of boiling water. Bring slowly to the boil and simmer for 5-10 minutes. Remove from the heat and strain immediately.
* Sweet cicely tea (seed or leaf) if taken hot will help to ease a troublesome cough. The tea is also an effective tonic and is helpful in cases of anaemia. It is particularly good for the elderly and for teenage girls and the tea, which is very pleasant, can be sweetened with a little honey and taken daily.
* Sweet cicely seeds can be chewed as an instant remedy for mild indigestion.
An ointment can also be used as a first aid treatment for cuts and abrasions.
* To make the ointment: Melt 4 tablespoons of white petroleum jelly in an enamel pan and add 1 tablespoon of powdered dried sweet cicely root. Bring slowly to the boil and simmer for 15 minutes. Strain into small pots and cover when cold.
Sweet cicely is a useful herb to be included in the diet when following a slimming programme and should be used wherever possible in place of sugar when cooking. It is also mildly diuretic and will help the system to rid itself of excess fluid. A glassful of sweet cicely tea (see Medicinal Use) can be taken first thing in the morning on an empty stomach and to be effective should not be sweetened.
* Dried sweet cicely leaves and powdered seeds add a lovely fragrance when mixed with other dried herbs and flowers in a potpourri. The seeds are particularly useful as they act as a fixative, prolonging the scents of the other herbs. They can be put in a dry potpourri mixture which is usually put into an open bowl where the scents of all the colourful herbs need to be strong. Ground spices are added and other fixatives such as the roots of orris or elecampane.
For a fruit salad for 4 people, make a syrup by adding 1 sprig of sweet cicely and 1½ tablespoons of sugar and 1½ tablespoons orange juice and ½ cup water. Bring to the boil and boil for 4 minutes. Cool. Discard the sweet cicely. Add the syrup with 1 tablespoon of chopped fresh sweet cicely leaves to thinly sliced fruits such as apples, plums, pears and melon.