Licorice of the Woods – Sweet Cicely or Sweetroot in Herbal Healing

**Disclaimer** The information in this article is NOT intended to assess, diagnose, prescribe, or promise cure. Its intent is to be purely educational; if suffering serious illness, please contact a professional healthcare provider.

Properties: Tonic, Bitter Tonic, Aromatic, Carminative, Adaptogen, Stimulating Expectorant, Demulcent, Anti-spasmodic, Immune Booster, Antimicrobial, Emmenagogue

Energetics: Damp and warming, Sweet

Parts Used: Root, sometimes leaves

sweet-cicely-flowers

When first walking the woods of Iowa out by where I live, I came across swathes of forest that were completely carpeted with an interesting looking herb.

I turned to a few people I knew and asked them what it may be, describing it in detail.  One of them was an ecologist, another a biologist, and yet another a dedicated explorer of wilderness.

I was surprised that they were each baffled, having not fully noticed the plant before – as it really isn’t all that memorable or interesting to look at.

One of them suggested it was Greek Valerian, or Jacob’s Ladder, but those were not matches.  One of them even brought up Poison Hemlock: “No, no, no- definitely not that!”

A lot of time went by before thinking of the plant again, even though I continued to see it everywhere: while hiking, fishing, or gathering other herbs.  It is quite ubiquitous, but unremarkable in appearance.  Nonetheless, it learned how to catch my eye.

Then, through a series of interesting events, I stumbled upon a picture of this plant in one of my favorite plant guides.

sweet-cicely-rain

Sweet Cicely was what it was called, an obscure member of the Carrot Family, Apiaceae.  There was little information on it in herbals, so I didn’t focus on it too much.

Then, I was shocked and pleased to discover that it was considered to be a very important cornerstone in Cherokee Herbal Medicine, via herbalist David Winston.

With some study I came to understand that it was also important to many other First Nations in our history as well, collectively a stomach/bowel remedy and Woman’s Medicine.  In the end, though – it was the word adaptogen that rang in my ears.

This plant is not to be confused with the Sweet Cicely of European Herbalism fame, Myrrhis odorata.  They do have some effects in common; but this low-growing plant found in damp, intact woodlands is very much native to the United States, and here in Iowa particularly.

To avoid mix-up with its cousin Myrrhis, I have opted to call it “Sweetroot” instead, and will refer to it as such throughout this article.

Leaves of Sweet Cicely Unfolding in Spring
The fuzzy leaves of sweet cicely, or sweetroot, slowly unfolding in spring.

Belonging instead to the genus Osmorhiza, the species longistylis and claytonii are quite prevalent in the Midwest, with occidentalis being the denizen root of the Rocky Mountains and the West.

As my beginning story foretells, this plant blends inconspicuously and expertly with the surrounding undergrowth.  There is hardly anything remarkable about it, nothing suspicious in its humble appearance, as it grows undistinguished and modest among its fellows.  

It’s only when you read about it, and learn to pick it out – like I did – and dig up your first plant at the root, taking a little nibble at its sweet, licorice taste, that you realize the true significance of the medicine you’ve stumbled upon.  Then, standing up and looking around at the sheer numbers of this plant surrounding you, it dawns on you exactly what wonderful prospects this plant may hold!

Smelling or taste-testing Sweetroot, in the process of its harvest, is quite important.  Some roots are medicinal, and some are not.

The most medicinal ones are those plants with roots having the strongest licorice aroma, a smell found also in some of Sweetroot’s relatives in the Carrot family.  This smell indicates the presence of anethole, a camphor that is found in other herbs like Licorice, Anise Hyssop and Basil.

Anethole spans across different plant families, but is most commonly found in the world’s favorite medicinal and culinary herbs.

The smell itself is a signal of Sweetroot’s remedy.  You can usually tell with a few sniffs of the plant, or smelling your hand after handling the root.  I personally like to take a few nibbles.

poison-hemlock
Poison Hemlock, a dangerous look-alike to Sweet Cicely. Especially when both are young, they look quite a bit like one another – only Sweet Cicely (or Sweetroot) will have that strong, licorice aroma. – Photo Credit: Shutterstock.

First of all, though, make absolutely, 100% sure that the plants you are looking at are indeed Sweetroot plants.  

Some people have been known to mis-identify Sweetroot with its dangerous cousin, Poison Hemlock (Conium maculatum).  A nibble of Poison Hemlock root will send you head-long into the beginnings of poisoning and symptoms of heart failure.

If you are not confident with your plant identification skills, bring someone with you who is experienced with this plant for harvesting –  whether that be a biologist, botanist or very experienced herbalist.

For those who are confident, Poison Hemlock leaves have a stronger resemblance to Parsley (also a relative) while Sweetroot leaves have a softer, feathery look, more similar to Angelica (yet another relative, too!).

With so many mentions to its close relatives, Sweetroot shares in some of their attributes too.  Southwestern herbalist Kiva Rose touches upon Sweet Cicely’s actions as a gastrointestinal aid.

With roots that remind one of the tastes of Anise, Fennel and Tarragon, Sweetroot occupies a similar herbal niche, promoting and assisting with difficult or troubled digestion.  Says Rose of the occidentalis species, “[Sweetroot is] very belly soothing for all kinds of nausea, infection, and general belly out-of-whackness.”

Its warming actions are perfect for cramps of the stomach, and the spasms of hiccups.

sweet-cicely-herbalism

A preparation of the herb would do well as an aperitif or digestif; and with its delicious taste, I can’t help but envision it as the perfect addition to an herbal beverage, swirling with cool cucumbers or a sprig of mint.

My fiance and fellow wild-food enthusiast William Lorentzen, upon taste-testing the root along with me, commented on how awesome it would be stir-fried and thrown into Indian and or Thai dishes!

As a warming ally to the digestive tract, Sweetroot’s effects also extend to female complaints.  Like another one of its close relatives, Angelica, a signature of bitter aromatics indicates a calming remedy for cramps and spasms of the uterus.

A classic bit of herbal lore holds the use of candied Angelica root, on hand, for chewing during the worst of menstrual cramps.  I have often thought that, to the same capabilities, Sweetroot may be excellent for the very same use – a candied root would be quite scrumptious.

Finnish Herbalist Henriette Kress talks about keeping candied Angelica roots in her purse for chewing at the onset of “moon sickness,” in the first installment of her book, Practical Herbs.  

American Indian women from various tribes were apparently acquainted with its ability to ease difficult menses.  The Chippewa particularly were cited to use a hot decoction of the root for bringing on delayed periods.

In fact, we certainly have Native American tribes to thank for the knowledge of its use at all, even though it is not one of the most recognized herbs today.

Predominantly Midwestern nations, who would have had access to the species Osmorhiza longistylis and claytonii, are mentioned as pioneering Sweetroot’s use as both a stomach and female remedy, but also as a “woundwort.”

Among these are the Omaha, Meskwaki, and Ojibway peoples, but doubtless there are many more.

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Through David Winston, practitioner of Cherokee Herbal Medicine, we have knowledge of its use by the Cherokee Indians.  Thanks to him and Cherokee folk medicine people, a bit of recognition for the plant is slowly entering the consciousness of mainstream herbalism, and it’s about time!

Winston says the root was, and still is, used to strengthen the weak and those with “depleted life force,” helping the frail put on weight.  The root was decocted and drank as a tea, most likely.

In Matthew Wood’s classification of herbs, this plant would likely to be designated a Bear Medicine for the very reasons of being nutritive, sweet, tasty, and restoring strength.

But what is probably of greatest interest to herbalists is Sweetroot’s ability to fulfill the role of an adaptogen- because it is an adaptogen!

Strengthening and toning the body is only one thing it does.  But Cherokee herbalism would have it that it is also tonifying to the lungs and mucus membranes, replenishing what is called “deficient lung qui” in Traditional Chinese Medicine, and improving our overall abilities to cope with illnesses, stress, and other undesirable changes.

Having the plant handy going into the winter and cold/flu season is another facet of its use.  It can be categorized with other herbs like Ginseng, Reishi mushroom and Schizandra for having similar effects to some extent.

young-sweet-cicely

Winston goes so far as to say, with confidence, that one could replace the use of both Licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra) and Astragalus (Astragalus membranaceous) with Sweetroot in their herbal practice.  Sweetroot was actually compared strongly to Licorice, having similar flavor, adaptogenic qualities, and effects suited to colds, coughs and sore throats.

That, to me, isn’t even the most intriguing part of discovering Sweetroot’s capabilities as an adaptogen.

Due to its availability, as well as comparing it to other adaptogens – and being an herbalist who prefers the forage/use of wild native herbs – Sweetroot is perfect for someone who wants to keep their practice as ethical and sustainable as possible, without having to think about the welfare of the entire species. Populations of Osmorhiza, around that States, are considered federally stable.

One thinks of the examples of more widely-known adaptogens: plants which typically are known for being rare or endangered, as in the case of Ginseng; plants that are a challenge to fully cultivate and use as our own personal medicines, such as Ashwagandha or Reishi; or herbs that seem unethical or very distant, as they are sourced from other countries thousands of miles away, like Jiao-Gu-Lan.

Many famous adaptogens are of Asian origin, and the native ones that we wish to feel close to here in the Midwest are herbs that we should leave alone: that includes the wild Ginseng and Licorice we take pride in.  Of course, they can be cultivated, but experienced herbalists know firsthand that cultivation just isn’t the same.  Neither is knowing a plant strictly through a capsule or imported tincture as satisfying as knowing and working with the plant personally.

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.

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).

Popular adaptogens are amazing and legendary for their effects on health – but can you form a wild relationship with the plant?  Probably not.  The best adaptogen you can form a personal rapport with, in the wild Midwest, would be Sweetroot.

If you live in the Midwest or Eastern United States, take a walk in damp woods near a creek or river, and you’ll probably find Sweetroot: growing with Wood Nettles, Virginia Snakeroot, Elder, even Morel mushrooms in spring.

Just like its common forest companions – there is plenty to spare.  Not something that could be said for an admirable and unequivocal adaptogen like Ginseng, even though Sweetroot is not near as strong.

All the same, it is amazing what the bond of herb and herbalist can do.  If you do choose to harvest it for yourself or others, remember always to harvest responsibly.

Homemade Sweet Cicely Tincture - Photo taken by Adrian White
Homemade Sweet Cicely Tincture – Photo taken by Adrian White

 

References

A Modern Herbal by M. Maude Grieve.  Randall Scheiner, Federal Ecologist.  Lisa Maas, Federal Biologist.  David Winston, Cherokee Herbalist/CRC Handbook of Medicinal Spices, James A. Duke and other editors.  Kiva Rose/The Medicine Woman’s Roots.  Practical Herbs by Henriette Kress.

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Herbalism in Iowa

This article is an expanded version of an article that I contributed to the Essential Herbal Magazine, which was published for the issue that came out for March/April 2014!

Fleabane by Paint Creek, Driftless Iowa ~ Photo taken by Adrian White

I am not a native Iowan.  In fact, I was born and raised in Utah, moved to Minnesota, lived there 10 years, and then traveled around to many places before settling down in Iowa.  People who knew me during my nomadic spree would speculate where I’d end up, and none of them would have thought it would be here.  A lot of my stops were in places like Eastern Texas by the Big Thicket country, the Appalachian mountains, the Sonoran Desert, the Sierra of Northern California or the Andes in Ecuador.  All these places are just burgeoning with incredibly diverse plant life, wild medicinal herbs, and square miles upon miles of wilderness through which to wander.   I sometimes wonder why I wanted to leave those places, all I know is that I did.  The only reason I have is that something just didn’t *click.*

How I was lured into Iowa is a long story.  In terms of practicing herbalism or wild-crafting herbs here, my expectations were pretty low.  Being an outsider I was one of those ignorant folks who at first glance thought Iowa was nothing but a bunch of corn.  It was one of those states you “hurry through” on a road-trip, like southern Wyoming or Kansas, because it is so boring to look at from the interstate.  When I landed here two years ago, I happened to settle in a beautiful little corner on an organic farm near Iowa City, which was hemmed in by corn and soybeans nonetheless.

Eastern Red Cedars in Iowa ~ Photo taken by Adrian White

Over time I was really pleased by the gentle “hilliness” around Cedar County.  I quickly grew to like this Iowa country; weirdly, I especially loved it in the winter, when everything is quiet, dry, and skeletal brown.  The corn and soybeans are gone by November, and all of a sudden you can see where the deer have been, migrating in their tiny little bands between fragments of forest and oak savannah.  What little woods are left spattered around between huge farms look like helpless bystanders to what’s around them.  There are big old ancient Cottonwoods that drop their  sticky buds for pain-soothing salves in the spring; there are rusty-colored Eastern Red Cedars, swathed in tall grasses, bearing loads of blue cone-berries that taste wonderful in autumn syrups and elixirs.  Sunsets here are like watercolor explosions during corn harvest season.  Coyotes yowl and sing at night in empty fields.  It’s as if nature is something exiled here, an outlawed thing.  The wild animals you do see here have this dazed look about them, a look that says “where do we go next?”

In the midst of slowly learning to love the land here, I began making my first excursions to Northeastern Iowa with my boyfriend to go fish in the wild trout streams.  We were both blown away by these preserved wildernesses and how secretive they were, up there in the Driftless Region, also called the “Paleozoic Plateau” since it was once an island in a sea of glaciers.  We did not expect what we found.  One minute you’re driving over a plain of corn and cattle, to turn into some tucked-up hills and suddenly, you’re in a lush and vibrantly forested hollow.  These were the exact spots through which the trouts streams would meander: the wildest places.  In between taking casts I’d wander off to go see if I couldn’t find any new and interesting plants, ones I wouldn’t be able to find in disturbed forest areas further south, and I still stumble upon surprises.

Trilliums dangle over a trout-filled creek in Driftless Iowa ~ Photo taken by Adrian White

There was so much more herbal diversity there than I would have ever expected for wild Iowa.  Mayapples, Trillium, Hepaticas, Columbines, and Bloodroot in early spring.  Sweet Cicely and Wild Ginger, Dutchman’s Breeches and various ferns, Jack-In-The-Pulpits and Green Dragons, Trout Lilies, Sarsaparilla, towering Teasel and Cow Parsnip.  Wild Bergamot (Sweet Leaf) and Mountain Mints, growing out in the open or on roadsides, sometimes inter-mixed with Echinaceas, Yellow Coneflowers and Cup Plants.  In the fall, out come the Goldenrods and New England Asters to carpet everything in purple and yellow.  Wild Cherry, Black Walnut, Cottonwoods, Poplars, Basswoods, Maples, and many different species of Oaks (including the great Swamp White Oaks) make up the forests that over-story these plants.  That’s just touching on some of the diversity out here, because there is so much more to explore, really.  All of these are fantastic, useful medicinal herbs, either very popularly used today or were once used in traditional folk medicine.  Some are dangerous or difficult to prepare, but medicinal nonetheless.  Some of them are federally threatened.

Ginseng, Black Cohosh, and even Goldenseal have been sighted in really protected, remote areas by buddies of mine who like to trek further up and further in, way off the main trails.  They are best left alone, since they are all Iowa has left.  Once upon a time, they used to grow prolifically here– back when Iowa was also covered with elk, bears, cougars, bison and wolves.

I was astounded to find that the diversity and peculiarity of Iowa’s plant life didn’t just stop there.  I’m lucky to have met someone who works up in the Upper Mississippi Wildlife Refuge in Iowa, a good friend of mine now, whom I poked and prodded about the plants up in places that are closed off to human traffic in the Driftless, for the most part.  I got excited one day when I realized I was in one of the wildest parts of Iowa walking around with a Federal Biologist, who probably knew more about the plants up there than most anyone.  I wanted her to tell me all about the “secret plants.”

Iowa Golden Saxifrage (Chrysosplenium iowense)

So she told me about some of them: Northern Blue Monkshood (Aconitum noveboracense).  Monkshoods are incredibly toxic but powerful remedies, and also very threatened; this particular species is found only in Iowa and New York state.  There is the at-risk Iowa Golden Saxifrage (Chrysosplenium iowense), which is only found in the Driftless Region, Minnesota and Iowa most particularly.  “Saxifrage” is Latin for “stone-breaker,” linking it to its folkloric use as a kidney-stone remedy.  Canada Yew (Taxus canadensis) grows furtively in Iowa only in the Driftless bluffs, another very toxic plant that was deeply effective yet very carefully used by herbalists to treat rheumatism and high blood pressure.  Its more towering European counterpart English Yew, Taxus baccata, was a very sacred medicine among the ancient Celts.

What’s more, the greatest underlying factor contributing to these Iowa plants and their rarity is their unmatched environment: algific talus slopes, my biologist friend told me; one of the most delicate and endangered ecosystems in the world.  Iowa happens to be the single-most notable region for having these environments.  Could you imagine that: Iowa, being home to one of the rarest ecosystems in the world?  Basically, these slopes are north-facing on bluff sides, which in winter accumulate enough cold and snow to recharge its peculiar plant life– plants that once thrived during the Ice Age when glaciers covered Iowa.  They need it to be a certain kind of cold for a certain amount of time, every year, and in a very specific (and also cold) soil condition or they cannot thrive.  It has also been observed that many of these bluffs also have “cold-seeps” or tunnels that emit random drafts of incredibly cold air, which also help these plants survive year-round, during the hotter months.  It is not yet completely understood how these tunnels even work, but there they are, and here we have all these crazy Iowa plants.  Most plants found on algific talus slopes can only grow in boreal forests or alpine areas, regions that are naturally much colder.  The conditions of the slopes are such that said plants thrive in these much lower altitudes and latitudes.

Algific Talus Slope in Northeastern Iowa ~ Photo taken by Adrian White

The understory of the Driftless in Iowa also holds a lot more then just Northern Monkshood and Golden Saxifrage, which are algific talus slope dependent and should never be harvested.  It spurred me to look into what else may be hidden in this underestimated state on those secretive bluffs.  Canada Bunchberry (Cornus canadensis), a prolific herb that typically carpets boreal forest floors, has edible berries and grows in remote areas of the Driftless.  Leaf tea was used by Native Americans for coughs, colds, and fevers, respiratory and kidney ailments,  and physical pains as an anodyne.  The root was thought to be sedative and calming, especially for youngsters.  Dwarf Horsetail (Equisetum scirpoides), related to other horsetails and the smallest of all, can be used interchangeably with other horsetails and is effective kidney and joint medicine as well as being very nutritive for hair, skin and nails.  Alpine Enchanter’s Nightshade (Circaea alpina) also grows up in Iowa’s bluff country, an herb steeped in occult tradition, magic, and witchcraft.  It is not a true nightshade, actually a part of the fuschia family Onagraceae and thus non-toxic.  It was internally and externally used for wounds, in a wash or poultice by Native Americans.  Medicine people employed it for binding and shapeshifting.  Reference to it has also been made in Saxon and Scandinavian folk medicines.

White Pines in Iowa's Ram's Hollow State Preserve ~ Photo Courtesy Forrest Kelly
White Pines in Iowa’s Ram’s Hollow State Preserve ~ Photo Courtesy Forrest Kelly

Apparently Iowa’s only native pine is the White Pine, considered one of the most potent antiseptics in herbalism, and most preferred medicine amongst all other pines.  The last great wild population is in White Pine Hollow State Preserve, and it is slowly disappearing.  A few random stands of it grow nearby but they are slipping slowly away as well.  Remote parts of the Driftless are home to Balsam Firs, Mountain Maples, and Yellow Birches in small numbers. These trees mostly grow in areas that are protected and where harvesting is strictly prohibited.  Their under-stories hold Northern Black Currants and High-Bush Cranberries, also in minimal numbers.

The list goes on: Twinflower, an Algonquin Woman’s Medicine; Alder Buckthorn, a laxative;  Mermaid Weed, stated by Pliny to have helped allay insect stings outwardly and fatigue inwardly.  What more, Iowa is home to over 30 species of orchids, including Yellow Lady’s Slipper, Spotted Coral Root, and Downy Rattlesnake Plantain, the most notably medicinal ones.  Switching to another biome entirely, a whole other range of herbs– some of which you wouldn’t dream grew here– can be found in abundance in Iowa’s “sand prairies.”  This is a sandy loam deposit covered in prairie plants dominated by Blue Stem grasses and peppered with other prairie plants.  Some potent medicinals number among the ranks, such as Puccoon, Horsemint, and Goat’s Rue.  To my disbelief, I was told that Prickly Pear Cactus (Opuntia fragilis) thrives really well in these little environments, and you can find it in plenty there!  Prickly Pear (Nopal in Spanish) is one of my favorite herbs and foods combined, and can be an amazing part of diets for those suffering from diabetes.  It has very stabilizing effects on the body’s blood sugar levels and helps the body maintain insulin.

Brittle Prickly Pear, native to Iowa (Opuntia fragilis)
Brittle Prickly Pear, native to Iowa (Opuntia fragilis)

Once you crack Iowa open as an herbalist or even just a botanist, you realize it is actually quite special.  Even more so because the prized medicinal plants are like hidden, mystical secrets that you have to search for.  But there seems to be a continuing trend in Iowa’s treasures: these plants are for the most part rare, threatened, at risk, endangered, or protected.  This shelf in the medicine cabinet of Iowa is off-limits, if we ever want to see it thrive and come back again.  Conventional agriculture has paved over and marginalized what few hidden gems we have left.  It seems that exiles and outlaws are the makeup of the most unique facets of the Iowa Apothecary.

Being an herbalist in Iowa, I think, means something a little different to me than being an herbalist in Texas, or California, or the Appalachian Mountains; particularly for an herbalist who seeks out herbs only in the wild.  I happen to think this is what led me to stay here and what attracted me to its beauty.  It is rare, delicate, and outlawed.  There are certainly plenty of rare plants to be protected out there in more naturally preserved states like California or North Carolina, and there are certainly plenty of common plants here in Iowa to make do with, whose populations are doing just fine.  But the fact that what is truly special and unique to Iowa is at the same time equally just as fragile and threatened, makes me believe that as a person who works with plants in this state, you absolutely must be ecologically aware.  What more, you need to take a bit of a stance of protection and stewardship.  You need to stand up for these plants, not just use them.  Stand up for them, or they will be gone forever.

So I guess you could say that is why I like Iowa, and why it’s got me hooked and here to stay: it is secretive, unique, understated, and in need of some really caring herbalists– and boy am I a sucker for an underdog.

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References: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.  Iowa Department of Natural Resources.  Central Iowa Orchid Society.  Lisa Maas, Federal Biologist.  Stephany Hoffelt, Iowa Herbalist.  Personal Experience.  Sarah Anne Lawless.  Eastern/Central Medicinal Plants and Herbs by Steven Foster/James A. Duke.