By Kathy Shriver - WRHS Website Chairman
When I joined the Western Reserve Herb Society in 2016, I was excited to work in its historic Herb Garden. We were able to choose a section that peaked our interest and since I am obsessed with flowers, so jumped at the opportunity to work in the Edible Flower Section. There we grow several dozen varieties of flowering plants and herbs and the blossoms of all of these are edible. I was drawn to almost all of them because the flowers were bright and beautiful and lent themselves to being a show stopping part of a salad, baked goods, drinks or could be beautiful and edible garnishes. And then there was this one lonely anise hyssop plant in the corner that I never paid much attention to. You see, I don’t much care for the taste of anise and I had no idea what a hyssop was. But what I did notice week after week was what an amazing bee magnet this plant was.
Fast forward to 2018. I made a late-in-the-gardening- season trip to a local organic nursery to buy some herbs for my home garden. The selection wasn’t as grand as it would be at the beginning of planting season so I wasn’t able to get everything I wanted, but I saw some anise hyssop there and thought to myself since this is the Herb of The Year TM for 2019, let me add a few of these….at least the bees love them. I hadn’t done any research about them and planted the four plants entirely too close together, not realizing how tall and wide each one would grow. By the end of summer, these 4 plants had grown into quite an impressive “hedge” of tall, purple blooms surrounded by pollinators of all kinds: Bumblebees, honey bees, and butterflies buzzed constantly from flower spike to spike. Brushing up against the foliage to harvest other herbs released a sweet smell of anise into the air. I decided one day to taste some of the leaves and flowers. I was amazed at how sweet the flowers were and that the anise flavor was not as strong as I thought it might be.
In the very early spring of 2019, I noticed some purple foliage poking through the soil. I couldn’t figure out what it could be. It seemed to be in the very spots I planted the anise hyssop the previous year, but purple? Lo and behold, as the spring progressed and the weather turned warmer, the purple foliage started becoming more lush and more green. I recognized the telltale shape of the semi heart shaped/triangular leaves and realized this was in fact the anise hyssop coming back. It is a hardly perennial to Zone 4 although it is considered “short lived” perennial i.e. dies after about 2-4 seasons. However, it is a self-seeder and as I discovered, I had several volunteer plants sprouting up around my raised garden bed. Unlike other mints, anise hyssop doesn’t spread like wildfire so it is easy to relocate unwanted volunteers and keep the wanted plants from crowding out others. Just keep in mind, it can get up to 3 feet in width and up to 6 feet in height so it will do best in the back of a flower bed (too bad mine is planted front and center and hides my calendula) and should be given plenty of its own space. Once again, as the growing season went on, my anise hyssop “hedge” took shape. This year, it grew so tall, it actually fell over on itself. But even then, the pollinators came, and came, and came some more.
I realized, as many others who also grow anise hyssop find, that it is a very useful herb that is often overlooked. For one thing, it’s not well-known. Had it not been the Herb of The Year TM for 2019, I wouldn’t have given it a second thought. My preferred nursery always carries it, but your average garden center won’t. Even though anise hyssop is not considered GRAS (generally regarded as safe) like more well-known herbs such as basil, rosemary or even lavender, herb gardeners have been cooking with it for decades, but you won’t find it among the fresh herbs for sale even at the most high end grocery stores. And don’t try to look for it amongst the dried herbs and spices or extracts. Anise hyssop is not that anise i.e. anise or anise seed-the herb that imparts a licorice taste or what you’d find as anise extract in the baking aisle. Nor is it star anise-the lovely star shaped spice that makes frequent appearances in recipes this time of year. Despite its name, anise hyssop doesn’t contain high amounts of the principal component of anise, a compound called anethole and in fact, there are those (myself included) who think anise hyssop smells more like French tarragon or fennel than anise. Which is why many prefer to refer to anise hyssop by its botanical name of Agastache foeniculum, rather than its common name.
Agastache takes its name from the Greek words ‘agan’ meaning very much and ‘stachys’ meaning spike. The Latin ‘foeniculum’ refers to the fennel-like smell and taste. Like other members of the Agastache genus, A. foeniculum is part of the mint family and can be identified as such by its square stems and its oppositional leaves. The flower heads or inflorescence are made up of hundreds of tiny pale purple-blue or white flowers that produce nectar all day long. As a result, pollinators find this plant a wonderful food source. In fact, it has also been nicknamed “Wonder Honey Plant” by beekeepers who are known to plant A. foeniculum close to their hives. The inflorescence flowers for up to 80 days.
Although A. foeniculum thrives in dry, rich and neutral soil, it can also be found growing in the random crack near where seeds may have fallen the season before. It does best in full sun, but will tolerate part shade. Though the original plant may only live 2-4 seasons, because A. foeniculum self-seeds, one is sure to have additional plants year after year. The taproot that forms helps give the plant its drought resistance. It is also fairly heat, deer, disease, and pest resistant making it a great herb for someone who has areas in their garden where nothing else seems to grow. Besides making for a pretty flower garden or a great way to draw all kinds of pollinators to your yard, A. foeniculum can be used to compliment fresh cut flower arrangements, create beautiful dried floral arrangements or made into potpourri. In the kitchen, both the leaves and flowers can be used to make teas, cordials or infuse honey or liquor. They add flavor and color to salads, custards, ice cream, and baked goods. The flavor also compliments savory dishes like pastas, fish and beef.
Agastache foeniculum can also be used for natural beauty or spa products because of its astringent, anti-inflammatory, cleansing and soothing properties and made into fascial masks, skin sprays and salves, or bath soaks.
So if you have some space in your garden this spring to sew some seeds or are able to find some anise hyssop plants at a specialty nursery, please don’t pass up the opportunity to add what will become an “herbal workhorse” to your yard.