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.

What is the “Deer Nation”?

What is the “Deer NatiArtwork Copyright Adrian Whiteon?”

I first stumbled upon the term leafing through well-known herbalist Matthew Wood’s acclaimed book, The Book of Herbal Wisdom, while in the midst of completing my studies as an herbalist’s apprentice this past year (2013).

The juxtaposition of these two words seems to leap out from the page.  They somehow combine themselves together very beautifully.  I guess you could say they leapt out at my subconscious just like a pair of deer themselves.  The words take me way back to a time I dreamt I was being trampled to dust by a stampede of a thousand deer, trapped in a car on the highway, windows smashed and hooves and antlers puncturing the walls of the vehicle like butter.  I was unable to escape death and yet at the same time, I felt completely elated.

A Mdewakantan Dakota woman Wood was treating and whom he mentioned in his book passed this term on to him as a formal title for all deer, their name as a complete species, as if they are a collective society, a tribe.  No doubt in my mind they are.  Wood references the term Deer Nation later in the book, stating that some herbs are specifically endorsed by the Deer Nation.  His meaning is very simple: these are herbs that deer like, of which deer are often seen favoring and feeding on in the wild, and very arguably for their own medicinal purposes.

The concept of the Deer Nation can develop further along those lines, if one delves into Matthew Wood’s phyla of Native Medicine and a grouping of herbs called Deer Medicines.   Specificity and origin of this herbal medicine classification system is unknown by me as to which tribe or nation from which it may originate; there is a chance that this is simply a classification method Wood developed on his own, inspired by native practices, but don’t quote me on that and I am sadly not a person to ask.  There are Wolf Medicines, Bear Medicines, Snake Medicines among others.  The classification of medicines in this system known as Deer Medicines have signatures reminiscent to the the physical and behavioral characteristics of deer, while also being herbs and wild plants that deer have predilection for.  Thus, Deer Medicines are herbs used (and endorsed) by the Deer Nation, you could say.

In taking the term Deer Nation and applying it in part to the work I want to do, it serves as a reminder to me and I hope to everyone else that everything we use is borrowed.  The plants and wildlife around us ultimately take care of themselves as they have for so many hundreds of thousands of years, without our help and regardless of our hindrances on them.  As herbal medicine is beginning to explode and become somewhat of a “trendy” thing along with all that other trendy stuff, people are going to start buying Gypsy Cold Care tea, or Triple Echinacea, or Black Cohosh capsules, or Goldenseal Root or whatever-what-have-you without even thinking twice about where it came from, and probably right off the Walmart shelf pretty soon– probably even already.  A lot of these “hit” herbs are, ironically, endangered and for the most part, you can attribute that to the high demand that has been placed upon them as medicine now and throughout history.  Plants don’t just belong to us all of a sudden as if they are now newly responsible for our health, a newly discovered medicine cabinet just sitting there in the wild, ripe for the picking.  We can’t just think of our health only to forget theirs.  We need to think of where they come from, where they grow, and we can’t forget the other Nations that may use or depend upon them.  We also can’t forget that they are their own Nations, their own populations of living things in their own right.

Deer Nation is a reminder to me that the plants I use are no more so my own than they are for the deer that wander through the fields outside my window.  In fact, one could argue that the deer are much more deserving of nature’s medicines than I could ever hope to be.  So I just try to remember what I’m borrowing.  Even the Black Cohosh capsules I purchase here in town– who knows how far they came, from where they came, and how many are left from where they have come. deernationLOGO

Lastly, if the overlooked state of Iowa where I live could be called anything in terms of its representative wildlife, Iowa is most certainly the Deer Nation.  Without wolves to hunt them and far outnumbering the coyotes that cannot hunt them but only scavenge their remains, deer are next at the top of the food chain amongst land mammals, second only to us human beings here in Iowa.  Deer are a widespread pride of this state, no doubt the most populous denizens of our wilderness, the guardians of what’s left amongst fragmented borderlands and patches of woods still clinging for life to the edges of thousands of acres of corn and soybeans.  If there’s anyone left looking after and deserving of the small wealth of plant medicines we have remaining here in the last oak savannahs, tallgrass prairies and woodlands of Iowa, it would be the Deer Nation.

So I have a handful of “hopes” in launching this “thing” I like to call Deer Nation Herbs.  It’s not a company, although it has a website.  It’s hard to call it even an operation, or an apothecary.  It may evolve into something like that someday, including products and consultations.  But I really just see it foremost as a hopeful presence.  Firstly, Deer Nation is my personal, unique take on herbalism, not just as an “-ism” but as the rich, deeply ancestral well of human culture it really is.

Secondly, I wish to exhibit a clear, unmuddled resource on herbal medicine in Iowa and the Midwest.  It is astounding how much misinformation there is on herbalism, and it’s disheartening to see how little it reaches people despite its increasing popularity.  When it finally does, people misinterpret it so much.  What’s more, when people who could greatly benefit start to use it, so many have no idea what they are actually talking about, let alone what they are doing– yet there they are, drinking Echinacea tea every day.  I do think Herbalism is a medicine belonging to the people; but medicine and especially medicine, like everything else, requires actually studying it and learning it from a reliable source or teacher.  Indigenous peoples the world over did indeed use herbs and have knowledge of their medicinal uses, the average layman amongst some knew the uses of 100+ herbs for food and medicine simply as a cultural norm; and yet, why did our cultures still have healers, medicine people and herbalists, people with specialized knowledge?  Herbalism is becoming immensely popular, yet 85% of the time when I hear it being discussed and “used” as at-home remedies, I am saddened because just these types of advocations and uses of herbs are the ones that discourage people from ever going to herbal medicine again, because it “didn’t work” or even made matters worse.

So without any further definitions, here is my hope of developing a tradition of herbalism and lore based in magical Iowa (that’s right, Iowa is magical), a place where herbalism is not heard from much in comparison to other areas of the United States, and where a lot of the old lore has been lost with the people who were displaced here before– and a place aching for a culture which desperately needs a true representative.  What better representative, or you could say “mascot,” may be found in Iowa to speak for plant lore, other than in the Deer Nation? 

Soon to come:  I hope to release sporadic articles on many subjects herbalism, at times discussing healing modalities directly or indirectly related to herbalism, or perhaps focusing on a specific plant as medicine, particularly Iowan plants, from Eastern Iowa and the Driftless Region.  This will include various herbalist concepts, methods, beliefs, traditions, movements, or personal commentaries on herbalism; whether from myself, other herbalists, other cultures or other herbalist sources– or maybe just what’s on my mind in regard to the world of herbalism at the moment.  I wish to post articles not only voiced in informed, scientific speak, but also to convey a voice steeped in lore and tradition stemmed directly from herbalism’s deep and fascinating pastIncluded may be unique or passed-on preparations for medicine-making, recipes and directions for your use and education at home.  I hope to see this website teeming with artwork, animals and plants.  Consultations, services, and perhaps products, to follow...

….thank you in advance for following Deer Nation Herbs.

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References

Matthew Wood, The Book of Herbal Wisdom.  David Winston.

Artwork Copyright Adrian White