This isn’t the showiest pony on any ranch. But humble doesn’t mean homely.
I hadn’t heard of sweet cicely until visiting Paradox Farm, in nearby Ashby, Minnesota. A friend, who had studied sustainable agriculture with one of the owners, Sue Witka, invited me to drive over and see firsthand the many amazing, edible and wild plants that animals eat while grazing at the farm.
Sweet cicely was, admittedly, not one of those plants. But Sue mentioned it enthusiastically a handful of times on our tour — enough that I wrote “Sweet Cicely!” by itself as a memo on my phone.
Several days later, I felt curious. I had almost zero anecdotal information. I hadn’t, somehow, managed to ask Sue to clarify what made the plant so special. But I knew, at the very minimum, that according to the Minnesota DNR, it is a wholly appropriate native plant to grow on lakeshore property where I was living in Otter Tail County (a county that, notably, contains 1,048 lakes) and somehow that felt like enough of a lead.
It was also my assumption that among a pool of contacts that includes herbalists, outdoor educators, researchers, and even one particularly very friendly DNR bureaucrat, there must be at least be one person with a deep familiarity with the plant.
As it turns out, I was pretty wrong. No-one had actually heard of it — although by sheer coincidence, someone offered my friend and herbalist Siloh Radovsky the opportunity to harvest it in Olympia, thousands of miles away, just days after I asked about it.
I almost gave up after hitting a dead end with research. I was full of doubt: maybe it just wasn’t worth it to try to study an edible plant not already included in every foraging cookbook I’d read. Maybe it tasted bad, and I was only retreading the failed footsteps of other amateur foragers.
But maybe it was worthwhile. Maybe it was totally awesome.
I committed myself to finding the plant, fueled by equal parts stubbornness and the unbridled optimism that it had to be growing wild somewhere in the city limits of Fergus Falls and that I absolutely, certainly was going to find it.
On my first attempt, I tried to find it by biking the Central Lakes State Trail, a 55-mile path that runs through west central Minnesota from Fergus to Osakis. I wasn’t sure it would be there — and I am admittedly not even an expert forager. Or even a particularly experienced one.
But either due to luck or simply the sheer prevalence of sweet cicely in Minnesota, I found it in less than a half hour. If you aren’t looking for it, it seems to blend almost imperceptibly into the nondescript vegetative growth of wooded areas. But it isn’t hard to spot if you do try.
It typically hangs out in semi or fully-shaded areas, particularly ones that are stream, river, or lake adjacent. And since discovering it on the Central Lakes Trail, I’ve also spotted it growing along the river walk behind the Fergus Falls City Hall; near the hilariously named Middle Spunk Lake at a rest stop in west central Minnesota; along Jensen Lake in Eagan, Minnesota (my hometown); hiding out in the semi-moist woods behind my childhood home; and even on the not-so-wild margins of the house itself.
Sweet cicely is, without a doubt, prevalent throughout Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Iowa. It is no longer terribly well known, however, with little popularity in herbal and culinary circles. Which is all a shame, because there is something genuinely sweet about it. For a hint of it, all you need to do is crush the leaves in your hand and then try to get a whiff of the fragrance that escapes. It is licorice-like and pungent, with a sweet sort of floral spice to the smell.
In Scotland, sweet cicely is nothing less than a known, cherished quantity. There, the common European form of sweet cicely is one of the cherished botanicals infused in Botanist Islay Dry gin. It is also commonly spotted in hedgerows and praised for its versatility in wild food-focused cuisine.
And yet, our sweet cicely (which, to avoid confusion with le European kind is sometimes referred to exclusively as aniseroot or even sweetroot) isn’t among the cool kid group of herbs that every foodie or casual herbal enthusiast freaks out about. Its unassuming appearance doesn’t help: it doesn’t exactly scream “I AM A SPECIAL.”
It’s also a member of the wild carrot family, with toxic cousins that include none other than poison hemlock (Shown below). Even a small nibble of hemlock can cause poisoning and heart arrest. But the British foraging guides I found encouraged even beginning foragers to try to find and identify it.
Do not harvest poison hemlock. Photo: tgd1220, CC BY-NC 2.0
Why? Partly because the pungent scent of sweet cicely is inherently valuable to its identification (Hemlock is said to have a very “mousey” odor). And because the scent is an indicator of something extraodinarily valuable to medicinal and culinary practice.
There is a cool kid group of herbs that everyone already knows about, that carry similarly pungent and almost spicy scents: a crew that includes star anise, basil, licorice, terragon, and fennel.
These plants don’t have much in common in terms of biological familiarity, not unlike any of the other cool kids (your heathers, your plastics, etc) we all know. But they do share an outsized, fragrant odor that is imparted thanks to organic compounds which include anethole, a substance 14 times sweeter than sugar.
Sweet cicely, the outsider none of us know, also shares comparable levels of anethole. And unlike licorice (the culinary and medicinal form of which is typically grown in Turkey, Greece, and many parts of Asia), it doesn’t require three years to produce a viable root.
So maybe I’m projecting here, and I shouldn’t be championing sweet cicely like it’s the Sea Biscuit of the culinary and herbal world. But as driftless region herbalist Adrian White, of Deer Nation Herbs notes, it is a native plant that grows in our own backyard.
Because of that, it doesn’t require an XXL carbon footprint to forage or cultivate and then ship across the planet. And not only does White believe that sweet cicely is a more sustainable alternative to licorice in the Midwest, her research even indicates that it has the adaptogenic healing capacity of even other much more rarer, or otherwise exotic finds, such as Reishi, Ashwagandha, Ginseng, and Jiao-Gu-Lan.
“Which is why I would urge any herbalist who relies on adaptogens to get acquainted with Sweetroot, whether it be just for themselves and their families or a clinical practice,” she writes on her website, adding, “If you wish to be an herbalist and fit seamlessly into an ecological or bioregional niche of herbalism, you’re not being practical leaning on a plant like Eleuthero to cover those bases (although Eleuthero has its own wonderful virtues).”
Note: Eleuthero is also known as Siberian ginseng.
Anecdotally, the herbalist Matthew Wood notes of its usefulness in the treatment of type II diabetes in The Earthwise Herbal: A Complete Guide to New World Medicinal Plants (“It is specific for helping the cells pick up more blood sugar.”)
And I can only imagine the brilliant, weird possibilities sweet cicely might inspire mixologists and foraging-focused foodies to take on. Which is exactly why I encouraged Siloh, and Put a Egg on It Tasty Zine author S.F. Keough, to do just that. You can find their contributions in the recipes section of this website.
So go out and try tasty, weird licorice things!