We hear a lot nowadays about the big five ancient spices: cinnamon, pepper, nutmeg, cloves, and mace. The pursuit of these bright, pungent flavors has enticed humanity to suffer long camel rides and even longer sea voyages, to start wars in order to access the plants that produce them, and to invade far-off countries for thousands of years. The spice trade was integral to the construction of large cities and ports, not to mention increasing the fortunes of plenty of merchants. Anise (Pimpinella anisum) has long been overlooked as a player in this story, but it may have played a bigger role than many of us assume.
Anise originated in Egypt and the eastern Mediterranean, and it has been cultivated for about 2,000 years, spreading across the globe in the process. In all those years, no one has seen fit to alter the plant much, which is rather remarkable.
A Global Flavor Phenomenon
Anise continues to hold fast to many of its earliest uses. Anise seeds (often called simply “aniseed”) are excellent for calming the stomach, a trait the Romans quickly picked up on. Aniseed cakes were customarily served at the end of a meal to protect from belly-ache, especially important after one of the overindulgent feasts common in the late Republic. The Romans also believed anise increased fertility and incited lust, so the cakes were especially popular at the end of wedding feasts. These simple aniseed cakes may be precursors to modern wedding cakes.
In Western Europe, anise is typically used in sweets and baked goods, and it also features in many traditional Christmas foods. Anisbrod is a German sweet bread flavored with — surprise — anise! Christmas cookies, such as pfeffernusse and springerle, also get a licorice-like flavor from anise, and Italian pizzelle, a type of pressed cookie, are traditionally made with anise, though you can now find them in an array of flavors. My main childhood interaction with the distinct black-licorice flavor of aniseed came from eating black jelly beans, but making pizzelle is probably one of my first memories of cooking with anise. I remember my mom getting the pizzelle press out only at Christmastime. I will forever associate anise’s sharp, licorice flavor with that time of year.
In the Netherlands, traditional aniseed hard candies have their roots in using anise as a galactagogue (an herb that promotes lactation), and a uterine stimulant. Eating these candies is thought to help the post-natal uterus return to its original size. Dutch families make beschuit met muisjes, biscuits topped with colorful candy-coated aniseeds called muisjes, to celebrate the birth of a new baby. Muisjes are also a popular bread topping, and may be powdered and sprinkled over bread and butter as a children’s breakfast food.
In the Mediterranean and Asia, anise leaves and seeds are often used in savory meat and vegetable dishes, rather than sweets. Curries and roasted meats and vegetables pair well with anise’s sharp bite, while mild fish and rice will benefit from the boost of flavor.
Aniseed’s flavor comes from a volatile oil called anethole, which seems to have inspired cultures across Eurasia to add anise to liquors. Aniseed gave absinthe its flavor, although fears over the detrimental effects of excessive wormwood quashed the liquor’s popularity. Today you can find anise featured in traditional drinks such as Andalusian anisette, French Pernod Anise, Italian sambuca, Greek ouzo, Spanish Aguardiente de Ojén, Egyptian zebib, Turkish raki, and Syrian arak.
Anise contains high amounts of iron, coumarins, flavonoids, rutin, and malic acid. This combination contributes to its healing abilities in the body, which have been recognized for thousands of years. The Ebers Papyrus, a medical treatise written in Egypt around 1550 B.C., mentions anise prominently. The Ebers Papyrus is one of the most complete ancient Egyptian medical documents known, and lists remedies for ailments ranging from asthma and parasites to death itself; it prescribes anise for abdominal and dental diseases.
The German Commission E, a scientific advisory board formed in 1978, published a series of monographs on the efficacy and safety of traditional, folk, and herbal medicinal substances between 1984 and 1994. These monographs are still considered valid, and they list anise as an accepted remedy for both cough and indigestion, affirming its ancient folkloric uses. The seeds are also antiparasitic, antiseptic, and antispasmodic. They’re often used for morning sickness, slow digestion, congested gallbladder, bronchitis, and spasmodic asthma. Anise has a strong reputation for eradicating lice when added to shampoo. Lab testing suggests that anise may be a phytoestrogen, but herbal clinicians have reported a marked decrease in their clients’ blood estrogen levels during use. Anise has no known contraindications or herb-drug interactions.
To use anise for respiratory or digestive health, try half a teaspoon (about 3 grams) of the seeds, either powdered or in a tea, three times a day for as long as you like. You may also enjoy chewing the seeds whole after meals, as is still common in the Middle East and India. Lightly toasted seeds offer the best results in managing digestion; simply heat the seeds in a frying pan until they darken slightly and give off an enticing aroma.
How to Grow Anise
The more I read about anise history and uses, the more I wanted to grow some in my garden, but it was not to be. Anise isn’t very difficult to grow, but it has one very specific need: a long (120- to 130-day) growing season. An exceptionally cool, wet spring kept me from sowing the seeds early enough. The long growing period isn’t a problem in Syria and the Mediterranean, where it’s grown commercially, but in the Midwest, getting enough time to bring the plants to maturity can be tricky. The small ovoid seeds are the main goal, so you need a growing season that’s long enough for them to mature.
Anise is a member of the parsley family (Apiaceae) and grows up to 2-1/2 feet tall, with small, umbrella-shaped umbels of white flowers from which the 1/8-inch seeds develop. Each seed has 5 longitudinal ridges that match the 5-sepal, 5-petal arrangement of the flower. Characteristic of the family, its upper leaves are opposite and feathery with a sheath at the base of the petiole where the leaf attaches to the stem, while leaves closer to the ground are simple and less lobed.
Anise doesn’t like being transplanted and is fussy about competition from weeds, so direct sow the seed into a clean, alkaline seedbed in full sun. Sow after the last frost, in soil that’s at least 60 degrees Fahrenheit. Water the plants regularly until they’re established, after which they can handle themselves, even in drought.
The seed heads will be ready to harvest about four months after germination. Like dill and other herbs with large seed heads, the best way to harvest the seeds is to gather the seed heads and hang them upside down in a paper bag.
After harvest, store the seeds in a sealed container in a cool, dry place. Pick one of the many food or drink recipes that call for anise from around the world, or store the seeds in your apothecary to care for your family’s ills.
This past year’s rainy spring delayed my planting, so I bought my holiday supply of anise. I won’t make the same mistake again — instead, I’m planting my anise in pots and will keep them on the patio. I must admit I feel compelled to give anise some space in my garden. There’s something indescribably alluring about the scent and taste of the seeds, and about growing an herb that our ancestors thousands of years ago seem to have valued for similar reasons.
Animals like anise as well! Here are a couple of great ways to use aniseed oil in the great outdoors:
- Add 2 or 3 drops of anise essential oil to a quart of water, and then spray the inside of your hives or swarm traps to encourage honeybee swarms to enter on their own.
- The serious angler may know this trick, but I certainly didn’t! Add about 10 drops of anise essential oil to 1 ounce of cod liver oil and mix thoroughly in a spray bottle. Lay out your fishing lures and hooks and spray them evenly. Allow them to dry and then turn everything over and spray again. Trout, salmon, and catfish won’t be able to resist the licorice-like scent.
Read How to Make a Sweet Dreams Sachet to learn about making a small pillow with aniseed and other soothing herbs for better sleep and calmer dreams.
Dawn Combs, M.A. ethnobotanist, is co-owner of the award-winning family herb farm Mockingbird Meadows and formulator of its Soda Pharm syrups. She is the author of Conceiving Healthy Babies and Heal Local. Read more about her work by visiting her website.