My 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?