Thursday, June 7, 2012

Sweet Cicely Identified

We have been seeking out sweet cicely (Osmorhiza longistylis) in Connecticut for a couple years, but it was not until Wildman Steve Brill physically showed it to us one day last autumn that we encountered it. It turns out that the green foliage dies back in the summer, and unless you know what the seed pods and dried stalks look like in the forest, you will not find sweet cicely easily. Robert dug up a few roots and replanted them in a large pot outside so we can observe the plant during all seasons, watch how it changes, and use it as a good indicator of when to seek it out in the wild. With this familiarity, we can find sweet cicely all the time in its different stages in places we commonly visit.

As tall as Gillian
hairy stalk
Sweet cicely is an herbaceous perennial that grow from a fibrous taproot. It is native to North America, and there is another cicely that also grows in Connecticut, Osmorhiza claytoni. The two cicely species are differentiated by root size, flavor, and by examining the seeds. The cicely we find often is the Osmorhiza longistylis, the more fragrant and flavorful plant whose seedpods have double points and longer roots. Sweet cicely grows in rich soil in shady woods from southern Canada to Alabama, and as far west as Colorado. In spring, the leaf stalks emerge from a single basal rosette, reaching from 1'-3' tall. The leafstalks are often purple and covered with fine hairs. In late summer, the foliage dies off and the dry leafstalks remain behind with the dried seedpods. In the autumn, new leaves will emerge from the basal rosette again, for a second chance to seek and harvest the plant.

Sweet cicely is related to carrots and parsley, so the leaves are large, compound, and toothed. This may not be an ideal edible for beginners, as it could be confused with poison hemlock. The leaves are doubly-compound and divided into groups of three irregularly toothed and lobed leaflets. The green leaves are lightly hairy, very tender, taste like anise, and can be eaten raw or steeped in a tea. The plant produces an umbrella-like cluster of five-petaled white flowers on the stalks in the spring, which are also edible.

Flower cluster, or umbel

Dry, mature seedpod
Handful of the immature seed pods
The seedpod of the sweet cicely develop after the flowers pass, in the late spring. When they are small, only about 1/2" long,, they are very tender, succulent, and intensely sweet and anise-flavored. As the seedpods mature, the will be about 1" long, curved, and black. The seedpods of the sweet cicely end in one or two pointed ends, depending on species, and this pointed end works like a hook to allow the seeds to be transported on animals or your pants to another site.

The root is the strongest tasting part of the plant. It is light beige, branched and gnarly, up to 6" long. The main taproot is rather fibrous, but can be grated on a microplane to be added to a cookie dough or cake batter. Gillian likes to chew on them raw while walking in the woods. The roots make a good tea to relieve an upset stomach. Robert is infusing some sweet cicely roots into vodka for an aromatic spirit.