- Edibility – 4 – leaves, flowers, seeds and roots
- Identification – 4
- Distribution – 3 – Quite common in Northern England and Scotland – scarce in S England. There are areas of NE Scotland where sweet cicely vies with cow parsley as the dominant roadside umbellifer.
- Season – March – July (seeds may still be found later and I have occasionally noticed autumnal leaf growth right into November on a mild year)
- Habitat – Moist hedgerows, field edges, roadsides, stream sides. Often found near human habitation.
Despite being a member of the often scary carrot family, this gorgeous plant is one I recommend to novice foragers. Many tasty wild foods make you work for your reward by being hard to tell from something more sinister. Not so sweet, generous cicely who kindly displays her edibility with two obvious and distinctive characteristics.
Any part of the plant, from the light green lacy leaves, to the delicate umbels of white flowers and the long, pointed seeds, smell of sweet aniseed when crushed. This could be sufficient to identify the plant (edible fennel has the only similar scent), but as the leaves are really rather similar in structure to hemlock (though softer and less glossy), best wear belt and braces by checking for pale “splashes” on the leaves. This looks to me like someone has splashed diluted tippex over their bases – its quite a random distribution and some leaves, and occasionally whole plants will lack any pale markings. Just leave them if you aren’t certain – or check out this page: Know Your Carrots!
Sweet cicely offers many sensual pleasures to the forager. There is an ampleness and generosity in her growth that is pleasing to the eye – seldom taller than a metre or so, but always appearing substantial without being solid. The leaves look bright and lacy and feel soft to the touch while umbels of tiny cream inflorescences float above. Even the scent is ephemeral – leaves sometimes seem noticeably sweet and aniseedy without being touched, but fade quickly after picking. This is not a plant to keep hanging about in your fridge, but that is unlikely to happen.
Aniseed naturally complements fish if applied judiciously. I have successfully filled belly cavities of sea bass and mullet with sweet cicely fronds before barbecuing, or added them with a splash of wine and other spring herbs when baking fish en papillotte. Salads reach new heights with a few leaves mixed through.
Anise aromas are surprisingly common in fungi and I like to enhance this by stuffing horse mushrooms with it. See the recipe here.
Fill your pockets with its delectable aniseed-sweety-seed pods and spread them about your mouth and the countryside.
It isn’t hard to imagine this plant being held in high regard during times when sweet flavours were harder to come by. It can add a new dimension to a bowl of berries – and I have combined it with japanese knotweed to make both a sorbet and a sauce for guinea fowl.
Drinks uses of sweet cicely
The sweet aromatics of sweet cicely transfer readily into liquids. Try steeping some (stems, leaves, flowers, seeds – the lot) in vodka for a few weeks to make a great anise schnapps. I use this schnapps in an atomiser to spray a hint of anise onto cocktails. Leaves can also be rapidly infused into water using an N2O cream whipper to make an elegant and refreshing soda. I have also successfully used the flowers instead of elderflowers to make a champagne (you’ll need to put lots of blooms in – they aren’t as pungent as elderflowers. I wrote this article on further drinks uses of sweet cicely.
But my greatest pleasure with this plant is to suck on its proudly presented seed pods as I walk around the Fleet Valley – natural and delicious sweeties!