I must confess to having a great fondness for edible plants. Plants you can eat cover some 80% of my urban garden, including, of course, vegetables, fruits and herbs. But I don’t turn my nose up at ornamental plants. In fact, quite the contrary. Many have undeniable ecological roles to play. Think of trees, of course, but also of flowering plants, some of which are essential in promoting the pollination of fruits and certain vegetables. And that’s without considering the positive effect of the presence of beautiful plants on our mental health.
So, when a plant such as anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum) combines several uses, it becomes essential in my garden.
Did You Know…
That the name agastache comes from Greek and means many (“agan”) spikes (“stachys”), referring to the plant’s numerous flower spikes. Foeniculum is from Latin for fennel and refers to the fennel-like flavor of the leaves, very similar to that of anise or licorice.
Anise hyssop is also called giant hyssop or blue giant hyssop. So where does the reference to hyssop come from? It turns out that hyssop (Hyssopus officinalis) is yet another herb, a more obscure one, and in no way related to anise hyssop, but whose flower spikes are somewhat similar.
Anise-Hyssop Up Close
This herb is a herbaceous perennial plant native over much of North America. Most cultivated varieties range in height from 24 to 26 inches (60 to 70 cm) in height, but wild forms can reach 4 or even 5 feet (1.2 or 1.5 m). It bears dense spikes of tiny flowers in shades of blue, white or purple. The leaves of anise-hyssop are oval, serrated, gray-green above and whitish below. Some cultivars feature lime-yellow leaves.
Apart from anise-hyssop, there are about thirty species of Agastache, most from North America. Moreover, anise-hyssop crosses easily with other species or other cultivars of agastache. Thus, to maintain a pure strain, it is best not to grow them close together.
A very hardy plant (it’s adapted to USDA hardiness zones 2 to 8 or 4 to 8, depending on the cultivar), anise-hyssop is not, however, all that long-lived. Individual plants may only survive for 2 or 3 years and certain cultivars, notably, are barely more than annuals! However, that’s not necessarily a problem, as the plant tends to self-sow quite naturally and many readily bloom the first year from seed.
Self-sowing is the kind of trait that some gardeners see as a good thing, but which can however annoy others, as anise-hyssop frequently becomes invasive. To keep it from spreading excessively, always apply mulch at the base of the plants. That will prevent any germination from taking place.
Another way of enjoying this plant without having to worry about invasiveness is to opt for a sterile cultivar. There are several of these, one being the popular hybrid Agastache ‘Blue Fortune’. However, since it doesn’t produce seeds, you have to remember to take cuttings or divide it regularly or you could lose it.
Anise-hyssop: So Easy to Multiply!
The best way to propagate anise-hyssop is from seed. You can start it indoors in March or directly in the garden when there is no longer any risk of frost. But if you already have an anise-hyssop plant in the garden, a lazier way to go is to let it self-seed naturally in late summer. (Obviously, this will only work with a fertile cultivar!) In order to carry this out, when the flower spikes start to take on a yellowish hue, remove some mulch near the base of the plant, leaving a patch of bare soil. That will allow seeds to fall directly onto the ground. The following spring, you only have to identify the small plants, relocating them if necessary, when they reach 4 inches (10 cm) in height.
They are also simple to propagate through division and cuttings.
Easy to Grow
Anise-hyssop prefers sunny conditions, bu will also grow in partial shade. It prefers rich and humid soils, but adapts to all types of soils provided they are well drained.
Because this plant is sensitive to winter temperature variations, place anise-hyssop where it can benefit from good snow cover. You’ll easily recognize anise-hyssop in the spring by its young leaves, since they take on a purplish color that stands out from other perennial plants. Flowering begins in July and continues until September.
Agastache does best when you grow it in the garden, but will also thrive in a container provided that the latter drains well and you don’t let it dry out too severely. You’d need a pot at least 10 inches (25 cm) in diameter. Set the pot somewhere where it can benefit from good snow cover during the winter. However, even if the plant does not survive, there is a good chance that the seeds that fell on the soil the previous fall will germinate and take its place.
7 Good Reasons for Growing Anise-Hyssop
Here are my favorite reasons!
1. For A Long Season of Beautiful Bloom in the Garden.
Anise-hyssop has long been recognized for its ornamental qualities. In fact, its neat habit and pretty flowers make it an excellent landscaping plant. And that’s without taking into consideration the fact that it flowers for nearly two months!
2. For Use in Preparing Cut Flower Bouquets.
A pretty homemade bouquet of cut flowers has no equal in decorating our tables and work spaces and you can offer one as a gift. For such a purpose, anise-hyssop mixes quite charmingly with other flowers.
3. To Profit From Its Remarkable Ability to Attract Pollinators
This plant is one of the most popular ones in my garden for pollinators. This is especially true of bees of all sorts, including bumblebees, but hummingbirds, hoverflies, butterflies and other little creatures also visit daily. As soon as the flowers start opening, I can observe the non-stop comings and goings of wonderful little creatures. This pleases me all the more in that I need them to pollinate several of my fruits and vegetables, including tomatoes, and increasing the number of pollinators has long been a goal for me in gardening.
Fun Fact: A study by Mt. Cuba Center in Pennsylvania found that the best bee-attracting agastaches were anise-hyssop (Agastache foeniculum) and the hybrid ‘Blue Fortune’. ‘Golden Jubilee’, a cultivar with vivid lime-yellow leaves, however, was a flop. Bees ignored it.
4. To Make Delicious Anise-Hyssop Lemonade in Summer
What could be better than anise-flavored lemonade to enjoy on hot summer days? To inspire you, here’s one of my own recipes:
Gives 6 cups (1.5 l) of lemonade
1 cup fresh agastache leaves
5 cups water
3/4 cup honey
1/2 cup lemon juice
Lemon slices (preferably organic)
Fresh agastache flowers (optional)
Pour a cup of water in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil and add the honey. Simmer while stirring until a syrup forms. Remove the pan from the heat and add the agastache leaves. Infuse for 15 minutes, then pour the syrup through a strainer. Put the syrup in a pitcher, add the rest of the water and the lemon juice. Mix well. Add lemon slices. Refrigerate for at least two hours. Serve with ice cubes and agastache flowers.
5. For a Comforting Herbal Tea in Both Summer and Winter.
If you are more of a “hot drink” type, you can easily make a delicious anise-hyssop herbal tea. During the summer, use fresh leaves and flowers. During the winter, use those that you harvested and dried.
For that purpose, when anise-hyssop flowers are fully open, it’s time to start harvesting. It’s even a good idea to start early, beginning in the middle of summer. That will encourage the plant to produce new flower spikes. It involves cutting stems 8 to 12 inches (20 to 30 cm) long, then hanging them upside down in a dark, dry and well-ventilated room. When the leaves are crisp, you can detach them and the flowers from the stems, then store them in airtight containers away from light until you need them.
Finally, to make agastache herbal tea, simply infuse approximately one tablespoon (15 ml) of fresh herbs or one teaspoon (5 ml) of dried herbs in a cup of boiling water. It’s that simple.
6. To Bring Touch of Anise to Cooked Dishes.
You can use anise-hyssop leaves fresh or dried in cooking. Adding the crushed or finely cut leaves at the end of a cooking session will add a mild licorice flavor to dishes of sautéed vegetables, pork, lamb or rice. Use them fresh in salads.
As for the flowers, they are best used fresh, because they are less tasty when dried. They will add a hint of anise sweetness to raw vegetable dishes, salads, cakes, fruity desserts and ice cream. Take care all the same to gently separate the tiny flowers from the flower spikes to keep your guests from choking.
7. To Add Fresh Taste to Your Dishes
You may already be used to eating broccoli or radish microgreens. But did you know that growing them yourself is easy and that there are a multitude of other plants that can be used as microgreens, including anise-hyssop?
To do so, you can buy seeds sold for this purpose on the market. Seed packs sold for garden sowing can do the trick if they are organic. But I instead suggest my own “econological” (ecological and economic) approach. It consists in this case of collecting the seeds of certain plants that I grow in my garden during the summer months. And anise-hyssop falls into this category.
To harvest anise-hyssop seeds from the garden, wait until the flower spikes start to turn yellow. Cut them and store them in a brown paper bag. Place it in a warm, dry and well-ventilated spot. After a few weeks, the seeds will detach from the spikes and fall to the bottom of the bag. Then you can harvest them and store them in an airtight container.
When the time comes, all you have to do is fill a small container with seedling potting mix. (I recycle mushroom containers from the supermarket to serve as pots.) Sow anise-hyssop seeds densely, then water gently. Finally, cover the tray with a dome or a transparent plastic bag.
Place everything near a window facing south or west or under artificial light. Monitor everything daily. Water as needed to keep the soil constantly moist, but not soggy. After about 10 to 14 days, when the microsprouts are about 1 inch (2 to 3 cm) in height, cut them at the base and harvest them. Then sprinkle them over your cooked dishes to add freshness.
Well, I hope these 7 reasons have convinced you of the advantages of growing anise-hyssop.
When I started writing this article, I had planned to tell you about 4 good reasons, but by looking closely at this wonderful plant, I finally found 7. And I wouldn’t be surprised if you find others such as the fact that this plant undoubtedly has therapeutic properties … but that is where my expertise ends.
Note: All photos are by the author.
Article translated and adapted from French by Larry Hodgson.