Anise Hyssop: Herb of the Year

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Photo by Getty Images/Willowpix

Is anything better than stepping into the garden in summer? Plants shine at the peak of their mature beauty, flower beds overflow with bushy perennials, and vegetable plants burst with seasonal bounty. The late summer garden is a magical place that feels both fleeting and timeless. But what’s that tall, attractive plant with the lovely lavender-blue flowers? The one that all the bees are buzzing around? Meet anise hyssop.

Worthy of Honor

Since 1995, the International Herb Association (IHA) has selected an Herb of the Year, and in years past, the organization has highlighted an assortment of beloved plants, including sage, basil, rosemary, and lemon balm. In 2019, the IHA is spotlighting Agastache foeniculum — more commonly known as anise hyssop — along with the other members of the Agastache genus. According to its website, the IHA strives to select Herbs of the Year that are “outstanding in at least two of the three major categories: medicinal, culinary, or decorative.” The versatile anise hyssop definitely meets these criteria.

The Decorative “Wonder Honey Plant”

Anise hyssop sits at the center of horticultural splendor. It’s perhaps not as showy as some other plants, but when it bursts into bloom in mid-to-late summer, its flowers are here to stay until autumn. Anise hyssop’s height is one of its most appealing qualities, reaching approximately 2 to 4 feet tall with gorgeous 2-to-3-inch long lavender-blue blooms. It’s an eye-catching addition to any garden, and is particularly striking when paired with coneflowers. Additionally, if you need a plant that will provide a backdrop for some of your favorite smaller perennials, anise hyssop can act as a natural border with its attractive mix of tall foliage and blossoms, not to mention its superb coloring. And you’d be hard-pressed to find another plant in your garden — or anywhere, for that matter — as alluring to honeybees.

Photo by Adobe Stock/Joe

Ask anybody about anise hyssop, and they’ll tell you that this plant attracts pollinators. While it’s a beautifully decorative garden addition when in full bloom, it’s even more beautiful when it’s covered in a jumbled assortment of bumblebees, honeybees, moths, butterflies, and hummingbirds. In fact, it’s been called the “wonder honey plant.” Frank C. Pellett, noted naturalist, author, and apiculturist, most likely first dubbed anise hyssop with that nickname. He used the phrase in 1940 in an article for the American Bee Journal after planting an experimental plot of anise hyssop in Iowa with seed that he’d obtained from Canada. He viewed the flower as an “outstanding” choice for honey production.

How outstanding is this “wonder honey plant”? Some have estimated that a 2-1/2-acre field planted with anise hyssop could potentially support 250 honeybee hives. This figure is significantly higher than the number of honeybees that the average 2-1/2-acre field will support. As an added benefit, people also enjoy the delightfully sweet honey from bees that have fed on anise hyssop’s nectar.

Putting Anise Hyssop to Work

Anise hyssop can be used for much more than garden décor or as a magnet for pollinators. Throughout history, people have used it medicinally to combat an assortment of maladies, from poison ivy to digestive upset. While modern herbalists still recognize the medicinal uses of anise hyssop, today’s gardeners are more likely to utilize this plant in the kitchen.

As a culinary herb, anise hyssop has many uses, although it hasn’t achieved the widespread fame of more well-known kitchen herbs. And that’s a shame, because it’s an herb with many possibilities. You can put anise hyssop leaves and flowers to use in salads, teas, and sauces, or as flavorful additions to beverages and desserts. Baked items, such as cookies and breads, can also benefit from a bit of minced anise hyssop for an added burst of flavor. Since it’s known to dry out the mouth if eaten in large quantities, use anise hyssop in small amounts when cooking.

Agastache ‘Blue Fortune’ 
Photo by Adobe Stock/dutchlight

Outside the kitchen, you can preserve and prolong the licorice-like scent of anise hyssop by incorporating the dried leaves in potpourri. Fresh anise hyssop blossoms also beautifully enhance bouquets of cut flowers.

Planting Anise Hyssop

A. foeniculum is a native plant that grows wild in prairies and plains in the northern half of the United States and up into Canada. If you’d like to invite this plant into your home garden, here’s some good news: It’s easy to grow! Anise hyssop isn’t one of those temperamental plants that requires the stars to align before bursting into bloom; it tends to thrive with basic care.

Anise hyssop grows as a perennial in Zones 4 through 9, although you can grow it as an annual in colder areas. There’s one caveat about its perennial growth: It tends to thrive for the first few years, with decreased production later on. So replant on occasion.

Ideally, select a location in full sun, although partial shade is generally OK. Aim for well-drained soil, and then get planting! You can direct sow your seeds, or start them indoors and transplant. Space the plants 6 to 12 inches apart, but be aware that anise hyssop is a member of the mint family, and it behaves accordingly. Once established, it spreads via self-seed and rhizome, and, though easily controlled, will expand its presence in your garden if given the chance.

And here are two more bonuses in its favor: Anise hyssop is drought tolerant (hence the need for well-drained soil) and deer resistant.

Intensely beautiful, appealing to pollinators, easy to grow, and abounding in culinary uses, it’s easy to see why anise hyssop is the 2019 Herb of the Year. How’s that for the perfect plant?

Learn the Lingo

Here’s the funny thing about anise hyssop: It isn’t part of the anise genus (Pimpinella), and it isn’t part of the hyssop genus (Hyssopus), but it has a scent like anise and an appearance like hyssop, which has led to its common name.

lavender giant hyssop (Agastache foeniculum)
Photo by Getty Images/AnjoKanFotografie

Of course, anise hyssop isn’t the only common name of A. foeniculum. It’s also known as anise mint, blue giant hyssop, licorice mint, lavender giant hyssop, and fragrant giant hyssop. Yet, despite the diversity in nomenclature, all the names refer to the same plant.

Popular Agastache Cultivars

Though A. foeniculum is the official Herb of the Year, the celebrated Agastache genus contains many more plants well worth our admiration. Expand your garden to include any of these cultivars; they’re excellent specimens in a variety of colors, and are sure to add an extra-special touch to your garden.

Agastache ‘Golden Jubilee’
Photo by Getty Images/Gratysanna

  • ‘Golden Jubilee’ was an All-America Selections winner in 2003, and is somewhat more compact than the straight species. It features a golden tone to its foliage and is truly exquisite.
  • ‘Blue Fortune’ is similar to the straight species, and is a well-loved cultivar.
  • ‘Black Adder’ is a hybrid pollinator magnet that’s suitable for Zones 6 through 9.
  • ‘Desert Sunrise’ is a cross of A. cana and A. rupestris, and features sheer beauty in shades of orange and pink. It’s suited to the climate of the southwestern United States.
  • ‘Blue Blazes’ is a hybrid of A. foeniculum and ‘Desert Sunrise.’ It’s a taller cultivar, reaching up to 54 inches.

Hummingbird Mint and Korean Mint

Hummingbird mint and Korean mint both fall under the Agastache umbrella. While they share common traits with A. foeniculum, it’s important to note their distinctions within the genus.

Hummingbird mint
Photo by Adobe Stock/Martha Marks

Hummingbird mint is a catch-all name for an assortment of different plants. A. cana and A. rupestris are two examples of hummingbird mint species that have achieved popularity. Similar to A. foeniculum, they’re beloved by hummingbirds. But unlike A. foeniculum, hummingbird mint is best suited for Zones 5 to 9, and it prefers the dry climates of the western United States.

Korean mint
Photo by Adobe Stock/avoferten

A. rugosa is more commonly known as Korean mint. While it bears many similarities to A. foeniculum, including its smell and how it reseeds, Korean mint is native to Asia.

Samantha Johnson is the author of several books, including The Beginner’s Guide to Vegetable Gardening (Voyageur Press, 2013). She lives on a former dairy farm in northern Wisconsin with a Pembroke Welsh Corgi named Peaches, and writes frequently about pets, gardening, and farm life.

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