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SWEET CICELY

Myrrhis odorata

Generally speaking, I advise budding foragers to approach the vast carrot family (the umbellifers or Apiaceae) with caution.  However, there are a few carrots which, with a bit of care, can be safely added to even the newest wild food enthusiasts' repertoire.  Myrrhis odorata, Sweet Cicely, is one of this handful of entry level umbellifers and a perfect example of the imperative to involve all senses when identifying and harvesting wild foods.  Plant identification apps -which can only rely on the visual clues of colour and shape- can confuse the similar leaves of Sweet Cicely with Hemlock, Cow Parsley, and a number of other Apiaceae.  In spite of the similarity in leaf shape and the white flower umbels, Sweet Cicely can be confidently distinguished from the lethally toxic Conium maculatum (Hemlock) and other, superficially similar, umbellifers  by a trio of unique characteristics involving different senses.  Around Edinburgh (where we don't find wild fennel or anise), the most important of these is scent:  Sweet Cicely contains anethole in leaves, flowers, and seed pods, giving the entire plant a strong, sweet, anise scent and flavour.  The green seed pods in particular, are strongly anise flavoured and quite sweet tasting;  traditionally, people have added Myrrhis odorata to stewed rhubarb and to strawberries to sweeten them with the anise oil.  My children love to fill their pockets during June walks with young, tender Sweet Cicely seed pods to enjoy  along the way like nature's green Tic Tacs.

The next sense to involve to help identify Myrrhis odorata is touch:  the leaves are softly textured and covered in a velvety down of fine hair.  This is especially noticeable in young leaves, but  to some extent persists throughout the year.   Finally, mature leaves have pale green, sometimes almost white, blotches near the central rib.  These three multisensory features combined with attention to habitat (wet road ditches and riversides), size (quite large at over a metre tall), and general growth (bushy herb with erect central flower stems with numerous flower umbels and long thin seedpods which turn from tender green to fibrous and hard black) make this a safe and worthwhile forageable for us lucky ones who encounter an abundance of Myrrhis odorata frequently .   (Since this plant needs low temperatures to germinate, it is found only in alpine regions across Europe and in the far north.)  

Try using Sweet Cicely (particularly  flowers, green seedpods, and young tender leaves) like you would use anise seed, dill, or fennel.  I like it with fish, in salads, to make a flower 'champagne', infused in spirits, and the chopped green seedpods in biscuits and breads.  The gently flavoured leaves lose most of their scent during cooking, so add them at the very end.

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