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Edible Plants: Myrrh or Sweet Cicely; History, Culinary Uses and Nutrition

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Like other members of the Umbelliferae botanical family, sweet cicely is nutritious and has antioxidant properties. Sweet cicely has historically been used as a food flavoring, a substitute for sugar and an herbal medicine.

Sweet cicely (Myrrhis odorata), also known as British myrrh, sweet chervil or anise fern, is a hardy, aromatic herb, originating from the highlands of Eurasia and Russia. Sweet cicely is one of several aniseed or licorice flavored herbs, including chervil, anise, anise hyssop, fennel and licorice, that has historically been used as a food flavoring and valued for its medicinal properties.

This perennial herb was traditionally prized because of its fragrance, and the oil produced from its seeds, which were crushed and used as furniture polish. Sweet cicely is considered a useful culinary herb because of its licorice flavor and its use as a substitute for sugar. In traditional herbal medicine, a tonic made from this herb was used as a laxative and to treat urinary infections. The roots of this plant were chewed as a breath freshener.

Sweet cicely produces clusters of tiny white flowers from early spring that continue to bloom through early summer. This herb grows to a height of 2-3 feet and is an umbelliferous plant, which refers to the umbrella-like shape of its flower clusters. Sweet cicely has silky, bristleless leaves, although some related species have bristles. The flowers are followed by jagged shaped seeds, which turn dark brown and glossy as they ripen. The seeds have a more robust aniseed flavor than other edible parts of this plant.

Myrrhis odorata is from the Apiaceae botanical family which includes angelica, caraway and parsley, to which this herbs fern like leaves resemble. This herb is closely related and sometimes confused with the Osmorhiza species of plant, commonly known as aniseroot, or sweetroot. Aniseroot can be found growing wild in damp woodlands across much of the USA and Canada. Aniseroot was highly prized both medically and as food by Native American Indians and early settlers. The fresh roots were applied to wounds and cuts. Its thought they have antimicrobial properties.

Little is known about the history of sweet cicely and its relevance to ancient civilizations. However experts suggest that the genus name of this species gives us some idea, as it often does with plant species. In this case Myrrhis was derived from the Greek word myron, meaning “perfume.” The name odorata comes from the Latin word odorus, meaning a fragrant odor. Also in parts of England sweet cicely is still referred to as the Roman plant, so we could presume that sweet cicely has a Roman connection as a utilitarian herb. Bees love nectar from the flowers of aromatic herbs and aside from lemon balm, beekeepers traditionally rubbed sweet cicely inside bee hives to attract new colonies.

Sweet cicely is also called myrrh, but this herb has nothing to do with the myrrh tree, as mentioned in the Bible. The myrrh tree (Commiphora abyssinica) produces a type of resin or gum, that was considered extremely valuable in ancient times, and was a gift from the Magi to the infant Jesus.

The Culinary Uses of Sweet Cicely: Both the leaves, stems, flowers and roots of sweet cicely are edible. They young leaves can be eaten raw in salads, steamed, boiled or added to stir fry’s. The seeds, which taste like licorice candy, are used to sweeten and flavor desserts and baked items. The roots are cooked and served like turnips or parsnips. They are roasted, or added to stews and soups. Sweet cicely root is used to make wine and the seeds are to used to flavor liquors. 

The Nutrition of Sweet Cicely: Sweet cicely, especially the root, has traditionally been used to replace, or as an addition to sugar in cooking. Research is being done to determine whether the herb can be used by diabetics and hypoglycemics. Therefore, sweet cicely could potentially be used in the same way that sugar substitutes, such as stevia, are used today.

Tea made of sweet cicely has traditionally been used in herbal medicine to treat digestive complaints, to strengthen the lungs and stomach. It is generally good for digestion and flatulence. According to research sweet cicely essential oil has antifungal, antibacterial and antiseptic properties, so it is not surprising that this herb was historically used to heal cuts and wounds. Like other members of the Umbelliferae botanical family, sweet cicely is nutritious and contains phytochemicals, which have antioxidant properties. This herb contains vitamin A, or beta carotene, vitamin C, calcium, potassium, iron and phosphorus.

Above image: Sweet cicely; the copyright of this image belongs to M J Richardson and is licenced under creative commons licence for further reuse. Primary image:Myrrhis Odorata; licened under creative commons licence. Image by Benjamin Zwittnig.  

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Roberta Baxter
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Posted on Aug 31, 2011
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Peter Bilton

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