Member of the family Apiaceae
Anise is an annual herbaceous plant, which belongs among the oldest known culinary/medical plants. We find it described along other herbs which were grown in the gardens of the Babylonian king Marduk-apla-iddina II (the biblical Merodach-Baladan), and also by king Ur-Nammu of Sumer and Akkad in Ur – over 4000 years ago.
Anise grows to about 50 cm height with white flowers, produced in dense umbels. High on the stems we find feather like, light green leaves while the leaves at the base are simple, long and shallowly lobed.
The umbels of small yellowish-white flowers yield fruits that are most often termed “seeds”, though this is not botanically correct.
As we see, anise originate, as so many herbs, in the Mediterranean region, and was, also as a lot of other herbs, spread by the Roman legions expanding their empire.
Anise is a member of the parsley family, and it is related to caraway, dill, cumin, and fennel. Anise-seeds have a distinctive licorice-like flavor, but the anise plant is not related to the European plant whose roots are the source of true licorice.
The seeds are used whole or crushed as a flavoring in various foods, both sweet and savory, drinks such as liqueurs as Middle Eastern arak, Colombian aguardiente, French spirits absinthe, anisette and pastis, Greek ouzo, Bulgarian mastika, German Jägermeister, Italian sambuca, Dutch Brokmöpke, Peruvian and Spanish anís, Mexican Xtabentún and Turkish raki.
Medically anise has been used especially as a digestive aid. The herbalist John Gerard writes in his Great Herball from 1597:
“The seed wasteth and consumeth winde, and is good against belchings and upbraidings of the stomacke, alaieth gripings of the belly, provoketh urine gently, maketh abundance of milke, and stirreth up bodily lust: it staieth the laske, (diarrhea) and also the white flux in women.”
The ancient Egyptians used it as a rather strange pregnancy test: The woman had to drink crushed anise-seeds mixed with a cup of water before she went to sleep. If the skin surrounding her bellybutton was itching when she woke up the next morning she was pregnant. – if there was no itching she was not.
Anise can be grown in a sunny, sheltered spot, and the seeds can be harvested in the autumn. All above-ground parts of the young anise plant can be eaten as a vegetable. The stems resemble those of celery in texture and have a much milder licorice flavor than the seeds.
You can make a quite delicious anise tea by steeping anise-seeds in boiling water for about 5-6 minutes.