Plant 184

Myrrhis odorata (L.) Scop. (Apiaceae)


Sweet cicely

In Britain, sweet cicely is the common name of Myrrhis, but in the United States of America the same common name is used for plants of the genus Osmorhiza; both are members of the carrot family. Myrrhis, a monotypic genus, is a herbaceous perennial with a substantial taproots. Its hollow flowering stalks, reaching a height of up to 1.8 m, terminate in umbels of creamy-white flowers that eventually produce clusters of distinctive, curved, brown fruits. The leaves are feathery, covered in soft hairs and often have patches of silvery-white markings.

Myrrhis odorata is native to mountainous regions of central Europe where it is tolerant of damp ground and light shade. It grows on verges and waysides, and in some areas may form dense stands along hedgerows. In the British Isles it was introduced as a strewing herb for church floors during the mediaeval period. It has now become naturalized across Britain but is most commonly found in the northern counties of England, Scotland and Northern Ireland. It is sometimes grown as a garden plant, and naturalised colonies may indicate sites of former cultivation. In cultivation it can spread widely through self-seeding and will readily re-sprout from small pieces of root.

All parts of the plant smell of aniseed when bruised, due to the presence of anethole. Anethole, a substance many times sweeter than sugar, also contributes to the scent and taste of other Apiaceae such as anise (Pimpinella anisum) and fennel (Foeniculum vulgare), and plants in other families such as liquorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra; Fabaceae) and star anise (Illicium verum; Illiaciaceae).

Myrrhis odorata has been used as a culinary herb, particularly cooked with rhubarb or acidic fruit as a sweetener, so reducing the quantity of sucrose needed. The leaves may make a pleasant addition to salads and the young, green seeds can also be eaten. The roots are sometimes boiled as a vegetable or candied. Myrrhis odorata is used as an ingredient in flavoured alcoholic drinks such as the Scandinavian akvavit and the liqueur Chartreuse. Although the entire plant is edible, confidence is needed over identification. As with all members of the Apiaceae there are many similar-looking species that are highly toxic.

Among its more unusual uses, the leaves are said to be effective polish for oak paneling, whilst one medieval view of its medicinal virtues has been quoted as: 'very good for old people that are dull and without courage'.

Further reading

Grieve M. 1931. A modern herbal. Cape.

Davidson A. 1999. Penguin companion to food. Penguin.

James Penny