Cicely & Alexander

It’s been raining for about a week and everyone I talk to is complaining, but not me:  everything is so lush and green.  I keep peeking out of my third-floor study window down at the garden below, a blissful escape from grading papers.  This is what I see: red, wet bricks and green, wet plants.

What you don’t see from this perspective are the shade borders that lead out to the street.  They are lined with two of my favorite stalwart spring plants: Sweet Cicely (myrrhis odorata) and Golden Alexander (zizea aurea).  These two plants never fail me, and provide fluffy little long-lasting flowers long before anything else has bloomed. Though Sweet Cicely is an herb with a long European heritage and Golden Alexander is a native wildflower, they actually have much in common:  both belong to the same Apiaceae family of  flowering plants, which used to be called the Umbelliferae family, for their hollow stems and umbel (umbrella-like) flowers.  This is a large group of plants that includes carrots, parsley, fennel, dill and other utilitarian potherb plants.  I think that the owners of my house and tenders of my garden from a century or more ago would probably be a little horrified by these lowly plants taking up so much prominent space, but I like them.

The path from street to garden; Sweet Cicely and Golden Alexander close-up.

Both plants are referenced in early modern herbals.  Even though my Alexander is an American native, it is related to a European genus called Smyrnium whose seeds were apparently sold by apothecaries’ shops throughout Europe.  Nicholas Culpepper, the seventeenth-century physician, astrologer, botanist, and author of The English Physician (1652) and The Complete Herbal (1653), describes Alexander as “an herb of Jupiter, and therefore friendly to nature, for it warms a cold stomach, and opens a stoppage of the liver and spleen; it is good to move women’s courses, to expel the afterbirth, to break wind, to provoke urine and helps the stranguary; and these things the seeds will do likewise.  If either of them be boiled in wine, or being bruised and taken in wine, is also effectual against the biting of serpents.”  Sweet Cicely, also an herb of Jupiter, has almost exactly the same virtues with the added benefit of  being a preservative against the plague (when drunk with wine, of course).

A century after Culpepper, Elizabeth Blackwell included both Cicely and Alexander in her Curious Herbal (1737-39), an ambitious enterprise she took on to pay her husband’s debts and get him out of debtor’s prison (she was successful, but he was later implicated in a treasonous conspiracy and executed).  The British Library has digitized King George III’s copy, so everyone can see Elizabeth’s hand-colored engravings drawn from specimens in the Chelsea Physic Garden.


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