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Herb to Know: Anise Empty Herb to Know: Anise

Post by Sonshine on Tue Nov 10, 2009 11:49 pm

Anise is one of the world’s oldest and best-loved spices, flavoring the food, drink, and medicines of many cultures since ancient times. Anise, which is in the same family as parsley, cilantro, fennel, sweet cicely, dill, lovage, and angelica, is not commonly grown in U.S. herb gardens. Things have changed since the early European settlers of Virginia were required by law to plant a few seeds of anise in their gardens.

• Anise Recipe: Anise Hard Candy

The plant is native to Egypt and the Mediterranean region. It is now cultivated commercially in many parts of Europe, India, Mexico, southern Russia, and Turkey, as well as the United States. Where conditions are favorable, it has escaped from cultivation.

The smooth, grooved stems of anise grow 1 to 2 feet tall. As with those of cilantro, the leaves are of two types: the lower ones are larger and pinnately divided into oval, coarsely toothed leaflets while the upper ones are small and ferny. (The generic name Pim­pinella is derived from bipinella, “twice-pinnate”, referring to the division of the leaves.) Tiny white or yellow flowers are borne in 2-inch-wide lacy umbels in midsummer, and the 1/8-inch-long seeds (technically fruits) are grooved, gray, and roundly ovate with one side flattened. They hang from the thin stems in pairs.

Anise’s medicinal powers have been appreciated for centuries. Some early claims were extravagant. It was said to ward off the evil eye and prevent scorpion bites, epilepsy, and bad dreams. Sixteenth-century herbalist John Gerard summarized the principal medicinal uses of anise:

The seed wasteth and consumeth winde, and is good against belchings and upbraidings of the stomacke, allayeth gripings of the belly, provoketh urine gently, maketh aboundance of milke, and stirreth up bodily lust: it stayeth the laske, [diarrhea] and also the white flux in women. . . . It taketh away the Squin­­ancie or Quincie (that is, a swell­ing in the throat) being gargled with honey, vinegar, and a little Hyssop gently boiled together.

He noted that it also sweetens the breath and “helpeth the yeoxing or hicket [hiccups], both when it is drunken or eaten dry.”

Its effectiveness in relieving gastric distress has been confirmed by modern science, and for this purpose it is best to make a strong tea from the seeds. The seed oil (whose main constituent, anethole, contributes anise’s flavor) is antimicrobial and a mild expectorant, but its use in small quantities in cough medicines and the like is mainly for its taste.

Anise leaves were once applied to the skin as a freckle remover, and a face pack made from the ground seeds was said at least to fade them. Seeds have been used in a wash to get rid of lice.

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He who cultivates his land will have plenty of food,
but from idle pursuits a man has his fill of poverty
Proverbs 28:19[b]

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