Sweet Cicely: North-South divides, Umbrellas, and ITV’s “Unforgotten”
Nature Notes by Ian Brand
An expanded edition of these Nature Notes can be found HERE.
Is there a north-south divide? There is botanically.
The south with its warmer temperatures has more flowering plants than the north. That doesn’t mean we are not without our Northern Belles, like Bird’s Eye Primrose, Globeflower and one of my favourites, Sweet Cicely (Myrrhis odorata).
Each May Sweet Cicely welcomes me back to the Dales, with its love of northern limestone country, often replacing the ubiquitous and less attractive Cow Parsley. It makes a handsome show on roadsides set against a backdrop of drystone walls. The creamy-white flowers and fern-like foliage is just perfect. That flower colour, that name, it should be on a paint chart!
As a member of the carrot family (Apiaceae), it is one of our many Umbellifers (the old family name). This describes well one of the families’ main characteristics of forming a flower head or inflorescence in the form of an umbel. An umbel is much like the spokes of an umbrella, with many of the family having a further umbel at the end of the first spoke or ray forming a compound umbel. This allows the small flowers to be grouped together to form a perfect landing platform for pollinating insects to visit. On a warm summer’s day umbellifers have the look of an insect airport, with flies, wasps, bees, hoverflies, beetles, jetting in and out.
Members of this large family are not just found along our grass verges but provide us with carrots and parsnips to eat, herbs such as coriander, parsley, lovage, angelica and cumin, and garden plants Astrantia and Sea Holly. Do not be fooled; they are not all either edible or beautiful, there are some deadly poisonous members to be avoided, remember Hemlock was used to kill Socrates.
If you feel happy identifying Sweet Cicely then it is useful herb, with the smell and taste of aniseed, just like the closely related Fennel. It was traditionally added to stewed fruits to decrease the amount of sugar needed, an expensive commodity in centuries past.
Lastly back to that north-south divide. Did you notice the forensic botanical clue in the recent ITV series “Unforgotten” with the wonderful Nicola Walker? Filmed in southern England, where Sweet Cicely is not found in the wild. The finding of trace amounts of this plant on the victims clothing immediately pointed to the murder taking place either in a garden or as in this case, an allotment.