Anise Hyssop in the Kitchen

anise hyssop 1My new darling of the herb garden, anise hyssop, is neither anise nor hyssop but a member of the mint family. You can tell this from the square stems and opposite leaves, but the scent might fool you. It’s a bit minty but even more licorice-like, with other, elusive characteristics. One nurseryman compared the aroma to that of root beer. My younger son is reminded of basil, but unlike basil anise hyssop tastes sweet, and to me it’s more refreshing than basil, in the way of wintergreen. The botanical name, Agastache foeniculum, tells you the plant is fennel-scented; it’s the fennel-scented member of a genus with a lot (agan) of wheat-like flower stalks (stachys).

Having decided to plant anise hyssop as a late nectar source for bees, I bought seeds from Nichols and easily sprouted them in the greenhouse last spring. Once I had set out the plants and they had grown a bit, I disregarded the bees and started picking the leaves and little lavender-blue flowers for my own use. Dried, they make a tasty and soothing herbal infusion. You can sprinkle the fresh flowers over a fruit salad, and the leaves are tender enough to add to a salad as well. Some people, I’ve read, use anise hyssop to flavor jelly, and others add the seeds to cookies and muffins.

Native to the upper Midwest and Great Plains, anise hyssop had medicinal uses for the tribes. Some found an infusion of the leaves good for colds and coughs. Others used the herb for bringing on sweat, as a wash for itchy skin rashes, or as a poultice for burns. Anise hyssop was also known as a cheering herb, a remedy for depression and anxiety.

Strangely, this plant gets scant recognition from cooks and herbalists in the Euro-American tradition. In fact, several of my herb books fail even to mention it. This may be because of its confusing popular name, but more likely because neither this species nor any other in its genus is native to Europe. One species, A. rugosa, comes from eastern Asia. It is added to Korean pancakes and stews and is one of the fifty fundamental herbs of traditional Chinese medicine; modern science has proven its antibacterial and antifungal properties. But all of the many other Agastache species are American. Together, the Agastache clan ranges from Mexico to Arctic Canada and from the West Coast to the East.

Ornamental gardeners have long loved these three- to six-foot herbaceous perennials, for their varied fragrances and bloom colors; for their eagerness to thrive, given sun and adequate drainage; and for their favor among bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds. When I bought a pretty plant with tubular yellow flowers at a garden sale last fall, I looked at the label and thought, Agastache—the name sounds familiar. I’d acquired ‘Summer Glow,’ a sterile patented cultivar that sadly won’t self-seed. More recently I bought ‘Sangria,’ an A. mexicana cultivar with pink flowers and lemon-scented leaves. Another cultivar, ‘Tutti Frutti,’ is supposed to have bubble-gum-scented foliage! They are all cousins, I now know, of my sweet anise hyssop. Maybe I’ll plant my three Agastaches side by side, so I can easily compare their looks and aromas.

Flower gardeners and breeders have long admired the Agastache species. Perhaps it’s time for more food gardeners to take note?

About Linda Ziedrich

I grow, cook, preserve, and write about food in Oregon's Willamette Valley.
This entry was posted in Herbs, Wild foods and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Anise Hyssop in the Kitchen

  1. Jennifer says:

    Anise Hyssop is one of my very favorite garden plants and herbs! I grow it in my yard, and it is slowly spreading–it reseeds itself readily. I dry quite a lot of it for herbal tea in the winter, and in the summer we throw fresh leaves of it in our salads. Additionally, it attracts bees to our urban Minneapolis yard, and goldfinches feast on the seedheads in the fall and winter. It’s definitely time for gardeners of all interests to take note of this plant!

  2. baltimoregon says:

    I love anise hyssop! In Oregon, I let it go to seed and got a lot coming back as volunteers the next summer. I want to make anise hyssop ice cream sometime, maybe with Maine’s wild blueberries! http://www.crumbblog.com/2010/08/i-scream-you-scream-blueberry-hyssop.html

  3. Thanks so much for the link, Laura. The blueberry-anise-hyssop ice cream sounds fantastic!

  4. Lorrie says:

    I love this plant, but I’ve yet to get it to make it through the winter here!

  5. That seems strange, Lorrie, because anise hyssop is the most cold-tolerant of Agastache species; it’s supposed to be hardy to USDA zone 5. But all of these species need good drainage. Maybe your anise hyssop is rotting in heavy soil?

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