If you live in the north, love the taste of liquorice, don?t want to bother with reseeding or carrying the more well known sugar replacement herb Stevia through the winter indoors, and are looking for something with ornamental qualities to boot (phew, talk about a long sentence!) then the hardy perennial Sweet Cicely Myrrhis odorata could be just the herb for you.
Also known as British myrrh, sweet bracken, sweet fern or most aptly, ?sugar saver? this is one sweet herb. Use of its young white flowers or leaves saves adding at least half the sugar to most recipes. This makes it another important herb for diabetics or anyone looking for a safe, natural sweetener.
The foliage may be reminiscent of tropical ferns, but don?t judge this plant by its leaves! Not only is it one of our hardiest herbs, it actually requires cold in order to germinate. When starting seed indoors you will need to stratify the seeds first by mixing them with some damp sand and placing them in a plastic bag in your fridge for four weeks. However, keep in mind that the seeds do not store well and are best planted fresh. Alternatively you can direct seed in the fall or if you wish, drop the fresh seeds into seed trays and leave outside for the winter. When the snow is gone, simply bring the trays inside where you can keep an eye on them and make sure they don?t dry out and then stand back and watch them grow! Transplant outside after the last spring frost. Propagation can also be achieved through root cuttings or division.
In the Garden:
Sweet Cicely (Zone 3 ? 7) is one of the first herbs to emerge in the spring. It can reach heights of 60 ? 90 cm with a spread of 60 cm or more. It is one of the few herbs that enjoys being in the shade and with its engaging fernlike foliage it is the perfect choice for creating dramatic woodland gardens. The delicate white flowers appear from spring to early summer. In heavy clay this herb is very well behaved, but in well drained, rich, moist, soil it can be somewhat invasive. To prevent rampant self seeding be sure to cut off the flowers before they turn to seed or see Culinary Uses below for what to do with the green seeds.
One herbalist recommends pressing bunches of cicely leaves together into a sort of herbal cigar, then wrapping tightly in aluminium foil before popping it in the deep freeze. When you need some sweetener, simply peel back the foil and shave off as much of the frozen herb as you want with a sharp knife. The frozen cigar method also works great for dill, chervil, fennel, parsley, summer savory, tarragon, comfrey, sage and sorrel. Leaves can also be dried and stored in glass jars.
Add a handful of sweet cicely leaves along with some lemon balm to boiling water in which tart fruits such as rhubarb or currants are going to be stewed and you will only need half as much sugar! Leaves can also be chopped up and added to cakes and cookies for the same ratio of sugar reduction. The foliage looks stunning arranged on a cake with violets and roses in the centre ? incredible edible decorations! Just before the seeds fully ripen they have a delightful sweet nutty taste. Toss the seeds with abandon into fruit salads, ice cream or pies, but be sure to sample them first to make sure they aren?t too ripe. After ripening the seeds quickly become stringy and unpalatable.
In the days before commercial furniture polish hit the shelves, cicely leaves were used for rubbing down oak panels and floors to make the wood shine and smell good. You can also use the dried leaves as additions to sachets or potpourri.
So whether you?re looking for a hardy, fern-like addition to your garden or a healthy sugar replacement that fits perfectly into your 100 mile diet plan, Sweet Cicely might be just the herb for you!