Many species in the genus Osmorhiza are commonly called sweet cicely because they, to a greater or lesser degree, have the sweet aroma and taste of anise or licorice. Every state except Florida and Louisiana has one or more representatives of this aromatic plant. One of the species native to the Western United States is western sweet cicely (Osmorhiza occidentalis), also commonly called sweetroot or western sweet root.
A perennial that grows from one to four feet in height, western sweet cicely grows as small clusters of erect, hollow stems originating from a taproot. The pinnate leaves are hairless with saw-toothed margins and long petioles (leaf stalks). The inflorescence is composed of tiny yellowish-green flowers in loose terminal umbels at the end of long peduncles (stem-like structures holding the flowers or fruits). The fruits are elongated, narrow seeds up to an inch long that turn brown at maturity.
The root of western sweet cicely has the strongest anise aroma and flavor, while the remainder of the plant is more mild. Other Osmorhiza species have a less intense flavor and perhaps are better suited for culinary purposes. Western sweet cicely can be used in small quantities to flavor herbal teas or other foods. I have nibbled western sweet cicely leaves on the trail. It does not take much to overpower the taste buds.
Native Americans utilized western sweet cicely for medicinal purposes as do modern herbalists. Among other uses, western sweet cicely is reported to help regulate blood sugar and inhibit fungal reproduction in the body and is also used as an aid in digestion. As a member of the carrot or parsley family, western sweet cicely could possibly be confused with other other poisonous members of this group with similar flowers (such as poison hemlock) or it could be confused with poisonous plants of other groups with similar leaves (baneberry, for example). One must be absolutely certain of its identification before ingesting western sweet cicely.
The first specimen of western sweet cicely was collected by Thomas Nuttall in Oregon in 1830. The scientific name derives from both the Greek and Latin – “osmo” meaning “small”, “rhiza” meaning “root” and “occidentalis” meaning “western”. The colloquial name cicely comes from the Greek “seseli”, “a carrot plant used in medicine”. Crushing the plant produces an anise odor, hence the sweet part of the common name. There is no connection with any woman named Cicely.
These western sweet cicely plants were photographed along Ash Creek below the Lower Campground (Lassen County CA).