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Herb to Know: Anise

By The Herb Companion staff
October/November 1994
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• Pimpinella anisum (pim-pin-NEL-uh AN-iss-um)
• Family Umbelliferae
• Annual

Anise is one of the world’s oldest and best-loved spices, flavoring the food, drink, and medicines of many cultures since ancient times. Anise, which is in the same family as parsley, cilantro, fennel, sweet cicely, dill, lovage, and angelica, is not commonly grown in U.S. herb gardens. Things have changed since the early European settlers of Virginia were required by law to plant a few seeds of anise in their gardens.

• Anise Recipe: Anise Hard Candy 

The plant is native to Egypt and the Mediterranean region. It is now cultivated commercially in many parts of Europe, India, Mexico, southern Russia, and Turkey, as well as the United States. Where conditions are favorable, it has escaped from cultivation.

The smooth, grooved stems of anise grow 1 to 2 feet tall. As with those of cilantro, the leaves are of two types: the lower ones are larger and pinnately divided into oval, coarsely toothed leaflets while the upper ones are small and ferny. (The generic name Pim­pinella is derived from bipinella, “twice-pinnate”, referring to the division of the leaves.) Tiny white or yellow flowers are borne in 2-inch-wide lacy umbels in midsummer, and the 1/8-inch-long seeds (technically fruits) are grooved, gray, and roundly ovate with one side flattened. They hang from the thin stems in pairs.

Anise’s medicinal powers have been appreciated for centuries. Some early claims were extravagant. It was said to ward off the evil eye and prevent scorpion bites, epilepsy, and bad dreams. Sixteenth-century herbalist John Gerard summarized the principal medicinal uses of anise:

The seed wasteth and consumeth winde, and is good against belchings and upbraidings of the stomacke, allayeth gripings of the belly, provoketh urine gently, maketh aboundance of milke, and stirreth up bodily lust: it stayeth the laske, [diarrhea] and also the white flux in women. . . . It taketh away the Squin­­ancie or Quincie (that is, a swell­ing in the throat) being gargled with honey, vinegar, and a little Hyssop gently boiled together.

He noted that it also sweetens the breath and “helpeth the yeoxing or hicket [hiccups], both when it is drunken or eaten dry.”

Its effectiveness in relieving gastric distress has been confirmed by modern science, and for this purpose it is best to make a strong tea from the seeds. The seed oil (whose main constituent, anethole, contributes anise’s flavor) is antimicrobial and a mild expectorant, but its use in small quantities in cough medicines and the like is mainly for its taste.

Anise leaves were once applied to the skin as a freckle remover, and a face pack made from the ground seeds was said at least to fade them. Seeds have been used in a wash to get rid of lice.

The seed oil has been used to poison pigeons and the seeds used to bait mousetraps. The oil has been used to scent the sack followed by foxhounds in drag hunting and the artificial hare used in greyhound racing. It has also been used to track honeybees to their hive.

The cuisines of many cultures, from northern Europe, Morocco, and the Near East to North and South America, have made anise their own. The fresh leaves are delicious in salads or cooked in stews and sauces. They may be dried for tea. The seeds, also flavorful in tea, enhance baked goods, eggs, cheese, and stewed fruit; they are especially good with figs and chestnuts. The Romans made a spiced cake containing aniseed which served both as dessert and a digestive aid. A mug of hot milk in which the seeds have been steeped is tasty and is said to promote sleep. Cinnamon, bay, and aniseed are a winning combination for flavoring meat dishes. The oil flavors candy, gum, ice cream, and pickles. Liqueurs containing anise include anisette, Pernod, Sambuco, pastis, ojen, tres castillos, raki, aguardiente, and ouzo.

As in H.M.S. Pinafore, “things are seldom what they seem.” Today, anise oil, not licorice, flavors most commercial licorice candy in the United States. However, because it takes 50 pounds of aniseed to produce 1 pound of oil, the anise oil of commerce may not have been obtained from aniseed at all. It’s more likely to have come from the much larger fruits of the star anise (Illicium anisatum), a small Asian evergreen tree of the magnolia family. The essential oil of star anise is virtually identical to that of anise.

Growing It

Length of the growing season is usually the limiting factor in growing anise: though the plants will grow in Zones 3 to 10, they need 120 frost-free days to produce ripe seed.

Anise will grow in poor, dry soil, but a light application of well-rotted manure is appreciated. Optimum soil pH is 6.0. Use fresh seed. You can get a head start on the season by starting seeds indoors eight to ten weeks before the last frost, but seedlings may not transplant well because of their long taproots. Use peat pots or otherwise minimize transplanting shock.

To sow seeds directly into the garden, choose a spot in full sun and out of the wind. Plant a few seeds in a group, or greater numbers thinly in rows 21/2 to 3 feet apart; cover with 1/4 to 1/2 inch of soil. The seed may take as long as 28 days to germinate. Though seeds germinate best in cool ground, the seedlings need plenty of sun and warmth to grow to maturity.

Gardeners disagree on how far apart the plants should stand, advising distances from 4 inches to 11/2 feet. The plants tend to be spindly, and those who advocate close spacing believe that the weak stems will support each other. If you’re growing just a few plants in a bed of other herbs, you might allow each one about 1 square foot of space. Mounding soil around the base of the stems offers some support, and staking the plants is a surer way of keeping them from flopping. Keep the soil well watered and weed-free.

A longer growing season doesn’t necessarily ensure success with anise. In the deep South, the combination of heat and humidity take their toll. Texas herb growers Madalene Hill and Gwen Barclay suggest sowing the seeds in fall in light, fairly rich, well-drained soil; plants live through winter and flower when warm weather arrives in spring.

If growing anise is difficult where you live, you might consider planting anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum), a problem-free member of the mint family whose anise-scented leaves and flowers can be used fresh or dried in teas and fresh in salads and cookies.

It is possible to sow a few seeds of anise in a pot in late summer to grow indoors during the winter, but you’ll need a deep pot to accommodate the long taproots and some way of supporting the sprawling stems. Snippets of the fresh herb can add some life to a winter salad.

Harvest the seed heads when the seeds are gray-green and the stems are yellow. Leave some of the stalk attached so that you can hang them to dry. First, however, rinse the seed heads in hot water to rid them of insects, drain them on a towel, and let them dry. Hang bunches of stalks in a dark, well-ventilated area indoors either over clean paper or in a paper bag to catch any seeds that may fall off. When the seed heads are crisp, in four or five days, rub them between your hands to separate the seeds from the stems. You may wish to put the seeds through a sieve or pour them from one container to another to clean them further. Store the cleaned seeds in an airtight container away from heat.

Anise plants sprawl too much to be considered ornamental. Two ­attractive and very ornamental European relatives, both perennial species of Pimpinella, are greater burnet saxifrage (P. major), with white or pink flowers, which grows well in moist soil and semishade, and burnet saxifrage (P. saxifraga), which has white flowers and grows best in dry alkaline soil. Burnet saxifrage also has been used medicinally.

Sources

Seeds of anise are readily available at garden centers and by mail order.

• Far North Gardens, PO?Box 126, New Hudson, MI 48165. Catalog $2. Seeds of Pimpinella major, P. saxifraga.
• Richters, Goodwood, ON L0C 1A0, Canada. Catalog $2.50. Seeds of P. anisum, P. saxifraga.
• WE-DU Nurseries, Rt. 5, Box 724, Marion, NC 28752. Catalog $2. Plants of P. saxifraga.
• Well-Sweep Herb Farm, 317 Mt. Bethel Rd., Port Murray, NJ 07865. Catalog $2. Seeds and plants of P. anisum.


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