Wild Anise Root Is A Native Cousin to Parsley

The Parsley family, Umbelliferae or Apiaceae, encompasses dozens of useful plants with similar features, like flowers with five petals in umbels or umbrella-like clusters near the top of the plant. Leaves are toothed and divided, sometimes very finely. Examples are herbs and roots we commonly use in the kitchen, like parsley, dill, cilantro, fennel, and carrots.

Two native Parsley family members that can be found in the woodlands of the eastern U.S. are Sweet Cicely, Osmorhiza claytonii, and Anise Root, O. longistylis, which are very similar in appearance. Either of these woodland plants would look nice in a herb garden. The foliage is leafy and fern-like and the flowers dainty.

The main character differences are that Sweet Cicely is a softly hairy plant, while Anise Root is nearly smooth. Also, anise root has slightly longer stamen tips, hence the specific epithet longistylis.

The anise root plant photographed here was growing along a country road. It was still flowering near the end of May in Pennsylvania.

Anise Root plant nearing the end of its blooming period.
Anise Root plant nearing the end of its blooming period. Note the seeds developing in the upper right and the last umbel of flowers on the left.

(Click on any photo to see a larger image.)

Take Caution: The leaves of Poison Hemlock, Conium maculatum, are similar in appearance. Do not ingest any part of any plant without a positive identification.

Sweet Cicely and Anise Root leaves are less highly divided, and potentially much smaller than, the leaves of poison hemlock.

Compound leaves of anise root.
Compound leaves of anise root.

Poison hemlock leaves have a bad smell when crushed, unlike the Osmorhiza which smell of anise or licorice. The sense of smell may be a poor indicator for some folks, so do not rely on this feature alone to distinguish poison hemlock from anise root.

Anise root stems are purple and smooth, while the stems of poison hemlock are spotted with purple.

Purple stems of anise root.
Purple stems of anise root.

Poison hemlock umbels are full of tiny flowers that make them look like several white spheres that may be held several feet high. Overall, poison hemlock plants are more substantial and grow taller. The umbels in Sweet Cicely and Anise Root are much more sparse with flowers than those of poison hemlock and they rise only 1-2 feet off the ground.

A compound umbel of anise root flowers.
A compound umbel of anise root flowers. Note the size and sparse number of individual flowers in each small umbel that make up the larger compound umbel.

Peterson’s Edible Wild Plants Guide tells us that the roots and green fruits smell of anise and that they can be used for flavoring. I’m curious, does anyone use this woodland herb?

6 thoughts on “Wild Anise Root Is A Native Cousin to Parsley”

  1. I have along my walk wild Anise , it comes back every year. I did not plant them . Probabley from birds carrying them here. I have dug the roots up and put in the freezer for the winter , just to chew on them because of the sweet taste.also have dried them to have them around to chew on. I’am wondering if any one knows it by Sweetroot?or what is Sweetroot?
    I lived along Sweetroot Road when growing up, My paternal side was Owsago Indians,of Bedford Pa.They came up from the South in the middle 1800’s.I wonder if that was how Sweetroot Road got it’s name from the Indians naming it Sweetroot road.

  2. Hi Rachel,

    It’s very interesting that you’ve dug the roots for chewing. Did you just dig them up out of curiosity? At any rate I would think that anyone, be it Native American or early pioneer, could have named this plant “Sweetroot” because of its sweet smell. One source stated that the sweet smell is liberated once you put a shovel to the ground for digging the roots. Osmorhiza longistylis is also called longstyle sweetroot.

    I’m curious…because you’ve dug up the plant did you spread the seeds or is there a nice big patch of Wild Anise available to you? It would be nice to see a large stand of this plant in the woods.

    Thanks for taking the time to write. Enjoy your wild walks!

  3. Thank you for the feed back on wild anise, the plant is spreading along my sidewalk and down over to a small garden below the walk , also I noticed on the other side of the house is a plant coming up in my herb garden. I think it got there of getting the seeds in my hair while pulling weeds near them and they dropped off to the ground.. also they stick to clothing, so ‘am sure they will spread easily. I went out and found a couple dozen seeds just now , will take them to the woods across the run (small water way ) and sow them. they spread fast. You can smell them when in bloom.
    Reason for the digging them , they have a smell like Licorice (I love Licorice) which peaked my intrest, so being me ,I dug them up and chewed on them to find out what it was like to taste and liked chewing on the roots.
    I use herbs and use to make soap for poison Ivy out of Jewel weed, (glass weed, touch-me-not).Good stuff to stop the itching and to kill the rash .

  4. That’s cool! It’s so nice to find a plant that you like so much and one that sows easily. I’ll have to go back to the location where I found the single plant next spring to see if I can find more of the wild anise or maybe to capture a few seeds.

    I never thought of making jewel weed soap, but it’s a good idea to have some around. It seems that it grows (around here anyway) where ever poison ivy does, so when I notice the jewel weed I know to look for PI if I haven’t spotted it already. If I think I’ve brushed up against some I rub some jewel weed all over the exposed skin.

    Thanks for your story!

  5. Best go for the seeds now if there is any left . I was lucky to get them this late,The seasons this year was early so very few seeds were on the dry stem although there are new plants growing already, next years crop ,Yea!
    If you are intrested in making the soap I can write it down for you.
    Happy seed hunting.

  6. The seasons surely were advanced this year from whatever “normal” is. I plan to go seed hunting next year, but thanks for your tips!

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