The herb of the year for 2019 is anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum). A member of the mint family, this lovely, easy to grow perennial is native to parts of the upper Midwest and Great Plains.
Anise hyssop has been a resident in the Biblical section of my herb garden for years as a representative of the “hyssop” mentioned in the Bible.
I also have specimens planted in the culinary and medicinal sections. Anise hyssop gives a hint of licorice and mint flavor to foods and drinks and has soothing, healing qualities.
Commonly called blue giant hyssop, fragrant giant hyssop, or lavender hyssop, its potent nectar makes it one of the best plants that attract bees. I often see both honey and native bees working the plant. Butterflies and hummingbirds hover over the herb, too.
Leaves Look Like Catnip
Anise hyssop leaves resemble catnip leaves, but larger.
A few years ago, I planted both of these members of the mint family side by side and until they bloomed, I had to get up close and do the sniff test to tell them apart.
The blooms, which appear from June to September, are two-lipped tiny flowers in dense spikes about four inches long. The plants grow from two to four feet tall.
Growing Anise Hyssop from Seed
This herb is easily propagated from seeds indoors or outdoors where I live in southwest Ohio, zone six. It grows as an herbaceous, sometimes short-lived perennial in zones four to nine. But I will tell you, once you have an established plant, you will see little volunteers pop up. This herb drops seeds readily.
Starting Seeds Indoors
I usually don’t bother starting anise hyssop seeds indoors since they germinate easily outdoors. But if you want to start the seeds indoors, use the same method as starting tomato seeds indoors.
Direct Seed Sowing Outdoors
When the last expected frost has passed, you can sow the seeds directly in fertile, moist, well-drained soil. You may want to plant the seeds in a pot instead of the ground. Planting herbs in pots gives you more control over the seed germination process, so feel free to use a container filled with quality potting soil. Either way, choose a somewhat sunny location. The seeds are small and should be sown in depths no more than a quarter of an inch. They usually germinate in a few weeks.
You can also sow the seeds outdoors in the latter part of fall. They will stay snug in their winter bed and germinate after the last frost has passed in the spring.
Plant seedlings in their permanent position 10 to 12 inches apart. They like a sunny location and will tolerate some shade. Water regularly until plants are established. Once they are growing well, anise hyssop plants thrive in soil that retains moisture, but not damp or waterlogged. Overwatering is the biggest culprit. Anise hyssop will tolerate dry conditions.
Propagating by Division
I have been told this is a simple process, although I have never propagated anise hyssop by basal cutting of young shoots since it’s best done in a greenhouse. Cuttings should be taken in spring when the plants have good growth and are about eight inches or so tall. Plant the shoots in individual pots using a good potting soil. Place in the greenhouse in a shaded location. Usually, they start to root in three weeks and may be transplanted outside during the summer. Pinching the plants back will stimulate branching.
Pests and Diseases? No Worries!
A bonus is that pests and diseases usually stay away from anise hyssop. The only trouble I have ever had is when the plants are very young and the season is wet enough for slugs to appear.
Anise hyssop has both medicinal and culinary qualities.
Native Americans used this hyssop in many ways. The Cheyenne drank a tea made from hyssop for what they called “dispirited hearts.” Yes, this herb is actually beneficial to heart health. Cree Indians included the flowers in their medicine bundles. The dried plant has been burned as a cleansing incense.
As an herbalist, I like using it for coughs, chest colds, and fevers. With its abundant antibacterial and anti-inflammatory qualities, it helps reduce fevers and is a good digestive aid.
Anise Hyssop Tea
Use one teaspoon dried or one tablespoon fresh chopped leaves to one cup boiling water. Cover and let steep five minutes or so. Strain and sweeten to taste. I like to serve it with a slice of lemon, which boosts the immune system with a dose of vitamin C.
Anise Hyssop and Hibiscus Tea
I like adding a few dried hibiscus petals to my hyssop tea. It lends a bit of tart flavor to the sweet licorice component and helps lower blood pressure. The tea turns a brilliant magenta color.
Soothing Bath for Sore Muscles and Stiff Joints
Put fresh or dried leaves in a cheesecloth bag or paper coffee filter tied at the top. Hang from the faucet to let the warm water flow over the herbs. If you suffer from cramps in the legs or feet, toss in a handful of Epsom salts.
Use the flowers and minced leaves in green salads. The licorice flavor does not overwhelm but adds an element of flavor and texture.
When a recipe calls for tarragon, chervil, or fennel, substitute anise hyssop. It makes a lovely substitute for tarragon vinegar.
Anise Hyssop Cordial
Fill a glass jar half way up with fresh leaves. Add some flowers if you want. Cover with vodka and let infuse for three weeks, shaking occasionally if you think of it. I keep mine on the counter so that I can monitor the progress. Take a sip now and then and when you think the flavor is to your liking, strain and sweeten with a simple syrup (equal parts sugar and water brought to a simmer to dissolve the sugar, then cooled and stored in the refrigerator).
Anise Hyssop Honey
Over low heat, warm one cup raw honey with two to three tablespoons coarsely chopped fresh anise hyssop leaves. Let mixture come to a simmer, but do not boil. Simmer 10 minutes, then strain into a sterilized jar. Seal and store in pantry up to one year. This is delicious on scones, bagels, muffins, toast, and as a sweetener for beverages.
Adding Hyssop Essence to Fruit Jellies
This is so easy! Just stir in a half cup fresh leaves with the juice when you start to make the jelly. Before adding sugar, remove the leaves and proceed with recipe. The leaves will have released their essence into the jelly, giving it just a hint of sweet anise. If you like, add a blanched sprig of the herb to each jar.
Anise Hyssop Agastache vs. Hyssopus Officinalis: What’s the Difference?
I need to address this since there’s so much confusion between the two herbs. Sometimes the tag on the plant will simply say hyssop. Depending on the shape of the leaves and the growth of the plant, it could either be anise hyssop or Hyssopus officinalis.
Both bee-friendly plants are members of the mint family. Anise hyssop, the 2019 Herb of the Year, is an American native and is the one with large leaves. There are some variations but they all resemble each other.
Hyssopus officinalis is a European native and has very slender, small, dark green leaves and blue, pink, or white flowers. This perennial looks more delicate than its American counterpart. It likes sun and can tolerate dryness.
Hyssopus officinalis is used traditionally as a healing herb. It’s also edible, with flavor tones of sage and mint.
The haunting licorice fragrance of anise hyssop is so permeating that crafters love the herb for its scent-keeping qualities and the fact that the dark purple/lavender-blue flowers keep their color even after drying.
Do you grow anise hyssop? If so, what are your favorite ways to use this lovely herb?