Herb of the Year for 2019 -
Anise Hyssop, giant blue hyssop
The common names for this plant are anise hyssop, anise mint, blue giant hyssop and licorice mint. It is a stiff, upright, leafy herb that can grow anywhere from two to 4 feet in height – which is unusual for the mints - and can have a somewhat bushy appearance. Spear-shaped bright green, and sometimes maroon-tinged leaves grow on square stems, its mint family indicator. Its leaves have a strong aroma, a combination of licorice and mint, a smell much like crushed fennel seeds and that is where we get the word foeniculum, as it is the latin word for fennel.
The taste is unlike most herbs, which tend to smell sweet but taste bitter on their own. Anise hyssop is surprisingly sweet all by itself. In mid to late-summer, four to six-inch spikes of densely packed small, violet and indigo, two-lipped flowers bloom amid the green leafy stems. The scent of the flowers mirrors that of the leaves, and they retain their color and smell even when dried. These flowers are attractive to bees, hummingbirds and butterflies – marking it as a good nectar plant for our gardens.
Herbalist Susan Bellsinger tells us that “the leaves and tiny lavender-blue flowers of anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum) smell and taste of anise, but its square stems and opposite leaves tell you it belongs to a different family entirely, the Lamiaceae (Labiatae), or mint family.
The leaves look a bit like catnip, another mint-family member, but larger. It has the sweetest scent, flowery but with a distinct minty and anise undertone. It is delicious and calming as a tea. Use it in salads or for a very different flavor add it to lemon loaf batter for a very distinctive taste.
Several species of Agastache grow in the south, southwest and into central America, including A. Mexicana, Cedronella Mexicana or Mexican giant hyssop commonly known as lemon licorice mint and A. urticifolia, giant hyssop also known as sawtooth mountain mint. As like A. foeniculum these plants are also a rich source of nectar attracting bees during the 12-week flowering period and were once planted by bee keepers in North America producing a fine honey with a mild aniseed flavor.
There are hundreds of cultivars of this wonderful herb, so if you have a sunny part of your garden and want to add some color but also have a very useful plant to make tea or add flavor, try Anise Hyssop!
Giant Blue Hyssop
Herb Of The Year:
2005 Oregano and Marjoram
2006 Scented Geraniums
2007 Lemon Balm
2009 Bay Laurel
2016 Peppers Caspicum ssp.
2020 Rubus ssp. (Blackberries,
Raspberries et al.)
The International Herb Association established National Herb Week in 1991 and every year since 1995 they have chosen an Herb Of The Year. The Herb Of The Year must fulfill its mandate by being useful in 2 out of 3 categories: Medicinal, Culinary or Decorative.
The original use of herbs was for medicine. In ancient Egypt, China, Greece and Assyria the treatment of diseases was performed by the use of herbs and spices either ingested or used as a poultice, salve, balm or the ancient word 'nard.' Arcane herbal knowledge has come down to us through the generations and today we look to the past finding out how our ancestors used herbs on a daily basis to keep their households healthy and happy. Here in San Antonio we are part of an ancient native American culture that used herbs for healing and in food preparation daily. There is no substitute for clipping a handful of fresh herbs from your garden or a pot on your kitchen window adding flavor and freshness to your dinner table and in so doing improving our health and linking us to centuries of herbal knowledge.
What Is An Herb? According to the Merriam Webster Dictionary, an herb is defined as a "(1) seed plant that lacks woody tissue and dies to the ground at the end of a growing season. (2) A plant or plant part valued for medicinal or savory qualities." The value of the plant can be in its leaves, stems, seeds or root. They are valued and harvested for their flavor, healthful qualities, fragrance or dye. Examples such as mint, oregano, cilantro and basil are harvested for their leaves which we primarily use in our kitchens. Spices are the woody parts or seeds of herbaceous plants. Examples are caraway, fennel, sesame, black pepper and cinnamon.