Background and Uses
Anise is a flowering herbaceous plant native to the eastern Mediterranean region and Southwest Asia. It was documented as being cultivated and used in Greek medical records as a way to relieve pain, help with breathing, and ease thirst. The Romans would traditionally serve spiced cakes made with anise and other spices at the end of festive dinners to aid digestion. Anise spread to Europe during the Middle Ages. The plant was first cultivated in America in the fourteenth century. Since anise grows best in warmer climates, it is grown commercially primarily in Southern Russia, Bulgaria, Germany, Malta, Spain, Italy, North Africa and Greece.
Anise seeds are sweet and aromatic, with a flavor that resembles licorice. They have been used to flavor many dishes, drinks, candies and even to scent candles. Tea can also be made from the seeds. The most potent form of anise, the essential oil, is used in medicine and cooking and has been in use since the 1800s. Anise is used to treat respiratory ailments – coughs, asthma, and bronchitis – as well as digestive issues. The oil is also a good antiseptic. Anise oil has found use as a repellent because of its ability to kill lice and other unwanted insects.
Anise grows to a height of 3 feet or more and produces large white flowers in dense umbels. The leaves are feathery and are divided into many sections. Anise is grown for its fruit, which is an oblong seed ⅛-¼ inch long; usually called aniseed.
As mentioned before, anise grows best in warmer climates. In the U.S., it generally falls into zones 4-9. In warmer climates, seed can be sown directly into the soil. In fact, direct sowing is recommended as anise seedlings are fragile and do not transplant well. Anise requires plenty of sunlight in order to thrive. Sow seeds in May (the soil needs to be at least 70 degrees to germinate) about 12 inches apart and ½ inch deep. Expect sprouting in around six days. Anise does not need rich soil in order to grow. Add fertilizer if the soil is extremely poor. Anise is an annual plant, so planting in spring and again in the fall is recommended.
Harvesting and Processing Anise
Anise seed develops from the flowering part of the plant. When the seeds have ripened to a gray-brown color, clip the entire head of the plant into a paper bag. The seed can be spread out in the sun to dry up any remaining moisture. When the seeds are completely dry, remove the husks and flowerheads. Store in a dry place in airtight containers. Seed used for culinary or medicinal purposes can last for many years if stored correctly. However, if the seed is used for propagating purposes, it is recommended to plant within a year.
Anise is not as popular as some herbs in the retail market, but it does enjoy a moderate amount of popularity. A variety of anise known as star anise is becoming more popular. Anise oil is most expensive, with prices running upwards of $10-$11. Dried anise seeds are less expensive, running from around $1 to $4-5.