When I first saw star anise, I assumed it was a seed. I was wrong.
The brittle black stars that smell akin to licorice and bring a rich sweetness to many Chinese dishes and Vietnamese pho are the dried fruits or pericarps of an evergreen tree that you can grow at home.
Star anise (Illicium verum) gets its name from the Latin words for true seduction. If you’ve ever experienced the lush, potent fragrance of star anise, you know how well this name fits.
How is star anise used?
While star anise tastes similar to anise, they are not related. Star anise is the primary ingredient in five spice powder, with cinnamon, cloves, fennel, and Sichuan peppercorns. Added to baked goods, herbal teas, mulled wine, poached fruit, and savory dishes, star anise brings depth and complexity. And the plant is quite lovely.
The star anise plant
Star anise trees grow fast. They can reach a height of 26 feet with a 10-foot spread, but are often kept much smaller by pruning.
The leaves are lance-shaped and fragrant but not used in cooking, and the flowers are pink or dark red.
The fruit is star-shaped and green until it ripens. Ripe star anise fruit is brown and woody. Each of the spikes of a star anise fruit is a carpel that contains a single seed
How to grow star anise
These plants are native to southwest China and Vietnam and prefer warm temperatures and dappled sun (think lower in the jungle canopy). They can be grown outdoors year-round in USDA Hardiness Zones 7–9. If you live in a cooler region, give your star anise full sun and protect it from wind and frost. One way to do this is to grow it in a large, wheeled container. Simply bring it indoors each winter.
The easiest way to grow star anise is by buying a certified disease-free sapling from a nursery. But don’t confuse these delectable spices with Japanese anise (Illicium anisatum) or swamp star anise (I. parviflorum) because those plants are toxic. And remember to place your new tree into quarantine to prevent bringing new problems into your landscape.
If grown from seed, it will take six years before you get a crop. You can also grow star anise from a branch cutting. These trees prefer loamy, slightly acidic soil (pH 6.0–7.5) and constant moisture. Your star anise tree will grow best with one inch of water each week, allowing the soil to dry out between waterings.
Top dressings of aged manure or compost can ensure your star anise gets the proper nutrients in spring and summer. Do not feed your tree in autumn or winter.
You can also grow star anise as a hedge, but it will require regular pruning because of how quickly it grows. Pruning star anise generates amazing smells!
Unripe fruits are harvested and left to dry. They can be stored for years in an airtight container.
Problems associated with star anise
Because of the oils that make star anise so fragrant, insect pests are not a problem for this tree. Alternaria blight and downy mildew, however, can cause problems. Use neem oil or fixed copper to prevent these problems.
Did you know that star anise used to be used to make Tamiflu? I didn’t, either.
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!
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