How to Use and Grow Soothing Anise

Unassuming anise has the power to soothe troubled stomachs and troubled dreams alike, and it’s a charming plant to add to an herb or flower border.

  • The delicate, lacy foliage and flowers of anise plants make a lovely addition to a garden border, in addition to its culinary and medicinal uses.
    Photo by Getty Images/ArtSvitlyna
  • Anethole, the compound that flavors anise liqueurs, such as ouzo, is more soluble in alcohol than water, creating an interesting cloudy effect when water is added to them.
    Photo by Getty Images/kajakiki
  • Aniseeds can be powdered or added to tea to support respiratory and digestive health.
    Photo by Getty Images/Furtseff
  • Crisp Italian pizzelle are traditionally flavored with anise.
    Photo by Getty Images/bhofack2
  • Bees are attracted to the scent of anise; use the essential oil to lightly scent swarm traps or hives to encourage colonization.
    Photo by Adobe Stock/Thomas Söllner

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.



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