Sweet Cicely is an introduced perennial herb growing from 2 to 3 feet in height on very leafy stems. Stems are ridged with fine whitish hair.
The leaves are lacy, 2 to 4 times pinnate, fern-like, finely divided, sparsely downy on the underside. The stalks and rachis of the leaf have spreading whitish hairs. A large sheath-like stipule forms where the leaf attaches to the stem. Leaves smell of anise when crushed. Leaves can be up to 20 inches long.
The inflorescence is a compound umbel at the top of the stem and from the upper leaf axils. The compound umbel is composed on numerous umbellets, each umbellet separately stalked and containing 8 or more small flowers. At the base of each umbellet are several thin pointed green bracts.
The small flowers are 5 -parted with white corollas that have 5 spreading petals, notched at the rounded tips. One or two petals will be much larger than the others. There are 5 stamens with whitish filaments and white anthers which turn dark with pollen maturity. Stamens are exserted far out of the corolla. The central receptacle is greenish-yellow with a single style.
Seed: The fruit is a long thin brown ribbed seed, about an inch long, usually produced in pairs, with a strong anise flavor. Seeds do not have long viability. Pollination is by bees.
Habitat: Sweet Cicely grows best in fertile sunny garden soils. It tolerates partial shade but likes moist soils. Seeds require cold stratification to break dormancy. The root can also be divided.
Names: The genus Myrrhis is the Greek name for a plant thought to be this species. It was also the name for the true myrrh, the fragrant gum resin used for ceremonial purposes. The species, odorata simply means 'fragrant'. The author names for the plant classification are: The first to classify was - '(L.)' which refers to Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778), Swedish botanist and the developer of the binomial nomenclature of modern taxonomy. His work was updated by ‘Scop.’ which refers to Giovanni Antonio Scopoli (1723-1788), Tyrolean naturalist who studied and published on plants, insects, animals and birds of the Tyrol. The genus Scopolia is named for him.
Comparisons: The common name of Sweet Cicely has unfortunately been applied to several look-alike plants. Aniseroot or Long-styled Sweet Cicely, Osmorhiza longistylis was formerly classified as Myrrhis longistylis. That plant also has 8 to 16 flowers in an umbellet, with styles longer than the petals, but the leaves are only 1 to 2 times pinnate and not fern like. Bland Sweet Cicely, Osmorhiza claytonii was formerly classified as Myrrhis claytonii. That plant has only 4 to 7 flowers in the umbellet, with styles not longer than the petals, but similar leaves - again not fern-like as those in M. odorata. Having removed the North Amnerican plants from the Myrrhis genus, botanists have now left only the Old World M. odorata as the sole species of the genus.
Above: Sweet Cicely produces numerous compound umbels atop the stem. Drawing from Prof. Dr. Otto Wilhelm Thomé Flora von Deutschland, Österreich und der Schweiz 1885, Gera, Germany, courtesy Kurt Stüber's Online Library.
Below: Each umbel branches into a number of umbellets, each umbellet with 8 or more 5-petaled flowers.
Below: The fern-like feathery leaf is 2 to 4 times pinnately divided.
Sweet Cicely is a native of Europe, brought to North America as a garden herb. There are a few areas in eastern North America where it is reported as escaped to the wild but it is mostly restricted to herb gardens.
Common and Medicinal Uses: Mrs Grieve (Ref. #7) reports that in the north of England the seeds were used to polish oak floors and furniture - which undoubtedly worked due to the fragrant oil in the seed. Fresh greens have long been used for salads as long as they are collected before flowering. The root also is edible, boiled and mixed with other vegetables. All the parts have an anise flavor. Sweet Cicely is one of the ingredients in the spice known as Bouquet Garni. The roots are antiseptic and decoction of the root was used for stomach ache and as an expectorant and the medicinal qualities are said to be similar to the North American plant - Aniseroot, Osmorhiza longistylis.
References: Plant characteristics are generally from sources 1A, 32, W2, W3, W7 & W8 plus others as specifically applied. Distribution principally from W1, W2 and 28C. Planting history generally from 1, 4 & 4a. Other sources by specific reference. See Reference List for details.
Identification booklet for most of the flowering forbs and small flowering shrubs of the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden. Details Here.
Friends of the Wild Flower Garden, Inc. Text and photos are by G. D. Bebeau unless otherwise credited. "www.friendsofthewildflowergarden.org"