Not to be semantically confused with : Sweet Alison, Sweet Chestnut,
Sweet Vernal-grass, Sweet Violet,
Sweet William or Sweet-William Catchfly [plants belonging to wildly differing families]
The leaves are 2 to 4-pinnate, fern-like and have a slight resemblance in shape and form to some other members of the Carrot Family, possibly poisonous ones. But those of Sweet Cicely are a lighter green, and smell of aniseed. Both stems and seed pods are covered in thin hairs reminiscent of those on Stinging Nettles, but they don't sting. It is mainly a plant of northern England and southern Scotland.
Uniquely identifiable characteristics : Smells of aniseed when crushed, as does Fennel, but Sweet Cicely has fern-like leaves whereas those of Fennel are thin and thread-like.
Distinguishing Feature : Apart from the pervasive smell of aniseed, the leaves are fern-like and sometimes have greyish markings on both the top and the underside.
Not to be semantically confused with : Sweet Alison (Lobularia maritima) [a plant belonging to the Cabbage family (Brassicaceae)]
Both the leaves and the seed pods, which are edible, liberate the sweet smell of aniseed when crushed between the fingers. In times past children used to eat the ripe seed pods as a snack on the long walk to school, the taste sensation being that of aniseed, due to the same chemical, anethole which is synthesized in the plant. Anethole is also present in two or three other members of the Carrot family, Fennel being one. The seeds can be eaten in salads whilst they are still green. The leaves can be blanched, deep-fried in butter and eaten as a starter. Sweet Cicely is used as one of the ingredients (amongst many) in the making of Charteuse. The leaves were once wielded in the polishing of oak furniture, which must have made any furniture smell delicious.
Anethole is the olfactory component of Oil of Aniseed, which is obtained from Aniseed Pimpinella Anisum, not a native plant. It also contributes to the flavour of Tarragon and of Fennel, in the leaves of Cinnamon (Cinnamomum osmophloeum)], in
Anise Myrtle (Syzygium anisatum) (which is in the Myrtaceae family, Wild Liquorice (
Astragalus glycyphyllos) and in Liquorice (
Glycyrrhiza glabra) (which is in a differing genus). Anethole is used widely as a flavouring compound.
An isomer of Anethole, called Estragole (only the position of the double-bond has changed) is found in Marjoram. Trans-Anethole, as shown above (but not cis-Anethole) is the sweet component of Sweet Cicely and has been shown to be 13 times sweeter than
sucrose (sugar). Anethole is used at low concentrations as flavouring agents in foods, but possesses undesirable hedonistic properties which prevents its use as a sweetener in replacement for sucrose. [Likewise trans-Cinnamaldehyde is also sweet, 50 times sweeter than sucrose, but not the cis-form.
para-Anisaldehyde (shown), which also smells of aniseed, is found in
Anise, Fennel and in Sweet Cicely.