From left to right: Bronze fennel, anise hyssop, flowering chervil, and French tarragon.
Anise-scented herbs are generally easy to grow, and fresh-from-the-garden herbs add flavor and fragrance to foods.
Anise is a common component in a variety of different herbs. The intensity of flavor varies so much from plant to plant, however, that even those who don’t care for the stronger licorice taste of fennel might enjoy sweeter anise or mild chervils.
Although all members of this grouping are used for culinary purposes, the part of the plant that is utilized is not always the same. For example, it is common to use the seeds of anise and fennel, the leaves of all varieties, the stalks of fennel, the flowers of anise hyssop, and the roots of fennel.
Most of these herbs are also valued for their ornamental additions to gardens. Read on for tips on how to cultivate these versatile and aromatic herbs in the garden, and ideas on how to use anise-scented herbs in the kitchen.
ANISE (Pimpinella anisum) is the common anise, a delicate annual that grows from 1 1/2 to 2 feet high.
Two types of leaves grow on the same plant — bright green oval ones with toothed edges at the base and a smaller, more feathery, elongated type on the stems.
Because anise has a taproot, it does not transplant well once established, so be certain to plant it where it is to remain. Tiny white flowers grow in umbrella-like clusters at the top of the stems. The plants like light, fertile, well-drained soil and full sun. Anise may be started from either seeds or small plants. Water regularly. The leaves may be cut as soon as the plants are large enough.
Gather the seeds when they ripen and change color from green to brown, then dry and store in tight containers. The home gardener can expect a harvest of 1 to 2 tablespoons of seed from each plant.
ANISE HYSSOP (Agastache foeniculum) is also known as licorice mint. A perennial, it may be grown from seeds, small plants, or divisions of the creeping root.
Anise hyssop grows up to 3 feet in height and likes moist, slightly acidic soil rich in organic soil and full sun. The gray-green leaves have toothed edges and whitish undersides.
The leaves of anise hyssop are a nice ingredient in fruit salads or tisanes, a wonderful way to infuse creme anglaise and ice cream, and a flavorful addition to simple syrups for sweetening beverages such as lemonade or tea. Overall, the fragrance is similar to French tarragon, but slightly sweeter, with a hint of basil.
Harvest leaves early in the day during a sunny, rain-free spell close to when the plants will be flowering, then dry the leaves and store them in glass jars.
For a refreshing tisane (herbal tea), fill a tea strainer with several sprigs of fresh anise hyssop and mint, washed and removed from stems. Pour boiling water into mug and let steep for at least ten minutes, adding honey if desired.
CHERVIL (Anthriscus cerefolium) is an annual that grows from 1 to 2 feet high and, because of its tap root, is not easily transplanted. Grow it from seed or small plants, starting in cool, moist soil during winter or part shade in late spring and fall.
Chervil plants prefer semi-shade and may be trained as an edging or grown in containers. In areas where summers are hot, chervil does best in part or full shade, although the combination of heat and shade seems to render the plants weak and susceptible to spider mite infestation. Water regularly.
Pinching off most of the flowers will prolong growth of the leaves, but leave a few and the plant will reseed itself.
Sometimes referred to as the gourmet’s parsley, chervil is a key ingredient in Béarnaise sauce and in fines herbes blends with parsley, chives, and tarragon.
Similar to parsley, chervil’s leaves may be used in soups, salads, sauces and herb butters. The small white flowers have a similar but milder flavor than the leaves and can be used as a garnish in lighter dishes, salads, and even with fruit.
Chervil also makes a good addition to vinaigrettes or marinades, and is a classic ingredient in a mesclun salad mix.
FENNEL (Foeniculum vulgare) is similar in appearance to dill and may grow up to 6 feet tall. The light-green leaves are finely divided into threadlike segments on tall, round, hollow stems. At the top are flat clusters of yellow flowers. Fennel provides food for the vividly striped caterpillar of the swallowtail butterfly.
Fennel may be grown from seed or small plants. It thrives in light, well-drained soil and full sun. Once established, fennel is fairly drought resistant and reseeds itself readily.
The flavor of fennel is similar to anise, though more full and earthy, sweet and herbaceous. Use the feathery leaves in soups, stews, salads, and marinades.
When using the stems, they should be cut while still tender and just before flowers form. Braise and serve as a vegetable or prepare and use in the same way as celery.
The bright yellow flowers can be used as a garnish on salads, such braised meats as lamb, and other dishes.
FENNEL SEEDS are a popular flavoring for breads, spiced beets, and sauerkraut. To collect the seeds, dry the crop under shade for four or five days to preserve the green color, then beat it to release the fruits.
Store dried seed in labeled jars out of direct sunlight until the next growing season. The essential oil of fennel seeds is also used for flavoring foods, confections, and liqueurs such as anisette and absinthe.
TARRAGON Although there are several varieties, FRENCH TARRAGON (Artemisia dracunculus) is the preferred culinary species of this herb. French tarragon doesn’t produce fertile seeds, so must be started from small plants or root divisions.
It does best in fast-draining soil and partial sun, but also grows well in containers and hanging baskets. Do not overwater or the plants may develop root rot. Frequent cutting, especially in summer, and a mulch of sand and gravel will lessen disease problems.
Tarragon goes dormant in the winter. Even if plants turn brown over the winter, they will more than likely regenerate themselves in the spring.
When harvesting French tarragon, snip the tips, but be sure to leave about 3 inches growth to keep plants vigorous.
Like chervil, tarragon is a key ingredient in fines herbes blends. Its smooth, slender, dark-green leaves are pointed at the ends and have a mild anise scent and flavor.
Fresh tarragon has far greater flavor than dried. The best way to preserve tarragon is in vinegar, which captures and holds its essence. Leaves may be used to flavor salad dressings, sauces, butters, and soups.
RUSSIAN TARRAGON (Artemisia dracunculoids) looks almost identical to the French, but has a much milder, grassy flavor. Growing to 3 or 4 feet tall, it has gray-green foliage and blue-purple flower spikes.
MEXICAN TARRAGON (Tagetes lucida) is also called Anise Scented Marigold or Yerbanais. It grows about 1 ½ feet tall and has toothed leaves and single orange-gold flowers. This variety may be grown from seed and does well in high temperatures. Keep the moisture constant to prevent wilting from water stress.