Sweet Cicely the godfather of the carrot family

IN

I’m sure that most towns and cities across the planet will have a family whose power and influence spreads throughout the town. They might own a few restaurants, small businesses, pubs or shops and they will certainly have more than their fair share of cocksure members. Members who as youths would swagger around the playground acting invincible. Indeed, they kind of were, as everyone would know that they had a “hard” uncle or “rock hard” cousins, and would learn to not to mess.  We certainly did in my hometown of Northampton, a family gave rise to more than a couple of school bullies, boys who’d find a protective shield behind their family’s legendary tales of petty crime and indiscriminate violence. Yet some of the members were extremely kind, caring, good natured and even good company. In many ways, the plant kingdom can be similar.  There are dominant plants in certain areas and plants that, although related, can show very different traits. Take the Apiaceae family (or carrot family) for example they really are the godfathers of the plant world.

This family, the 16th largest family of flowering plants, has almost 4000 members and their influence and power spreads across all corners of the world. Even if you are not a forager I’m certain that you will have eaten a plant from this family in some form or another as it includes, parsley, carrots, parsnips, dill and coriander in its clan along with wild plants such as cow parsley common hogweed and wild carrot . These are the kind members of the family, the members that most people can eat without any ill effects. Yet, just like my hometown mafia, this family has a darker side, a side that can hurt, or perhaps even kill. This family, the Apiaceae or parsley/carrot family contains the highly toxic hemlock Conium maculatum L and the invasive and toxic giant hogweed Heracleum mantegazzianum.

Botanist Gin Cocktail with Sweet Cicely

I do have to say here that the hometown mafia comparison breaks down a little, as I’m pretty sure they have never killed!

I do have to say here that the hometown mafia comparison breaks down a little, as I’m pretty sure they have never killed!

The Apiaceae was one of the first families of plants to be recognised as a group distinct from other plants, way back in 1586 by Jacques Daleschamps in his Historia generalis plantarum. In many ways, I wish it was the first family of plants that I ever learned as I now believe I should followed author and foragers John Rensten’s advice and got to know the plants that will kill me or make me ill before I got to know the plants that I can eat. Do that and you can go out foraging with some confidence that you’ll be ok. Instead, I stayed well clear of them not trusting myself to make a mistake. I really missed out, but you don’t have to as Mark has written this great piece on how to identify some of the best and worst of this eclectic family.

Being as I left this family well alone it means I came to understand sweet cicely’s charms really late but I am so glad that I did eventually find her as she has become one of those plants that I become excited about when I see growing in the wild, (although to be fair, she is part of a long list). Far and above my favourite use is in my own gin and homemade vermouth’s it is also reportedly one of the secret ingredients in both green and yellow chartreuse. If you are unaware of this plant and her tastes I’d say it has a similar flavour to liquorice; an ingredient that many gins and vermouths contain. Indeed, in some circles it is known as liquorice of the woods). It is of little wonder too as they both liquorice and sweet cicely contain an organic compound called anethole a substance that is abundant across much of the plant world which can also be found in star anise and fennel amongst many others. Next time you eat or drink liquorice, fennel or star anise has a little moment and ponder the similarities and you’ll see what I mean.

Anethole is only slightly soluble in water but much more so in alcohol which makes it a great ingredient to make infusions with and I think it offers a kind of sweetness. Indeed, it means that you can use little or even no sugar when using plants that contain anethole. You can even test the lack of water solubility as anethole or to be more accurate trans-anethole when dropped in water gives rise to the phenomenon known as the Ouzo effect as the liquid will go cloudy when you add water to a drink that contains high levels of trans-anethole.

Sweet Cicely

A true gem of a plant and one that can add a much needed sweetness to a cocktail or even a wild dish.

Foraging Sweet Cicely

It’s the sweetness of “sweet” cicely that attracted many Victorian gardeners to this shade tolerant plant and it could be seen growing across the UK, it is in gardens and planting schemes that I tend to find it down here in the south-west of England. It needs several months of cold winter temperatures in order for the seeds to germinate and therefore it is much more scarce down here than it is in the north of England and in Scotland. I was delighted to find it growing in abundance on a recent trip to Islay and it’s difficult not to want to stock up!

For those outside the UK, it originates from the Pyrenees to the Caucasus on woodland margins, riverbanks and roadsides so that’s your best starting place in Europe. In the USA, check out gardens and parks in the far North East and North Western states where you might find it introduced.

All of the plant is edible but the seeds are my favourite as they can be nibbled on as little sweet snacks which is something that, other than with wild fruit, can be hard to come by in the wild.

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