Herb of the Year 2019: Anise-Hyssop

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This year’s Herb of the Year, so named by the International Herb Association, is anise-hyssop (Agastache foeniculum), also called giant hyssop or blue giant hyssop. Or just agastache (ah-guh-STAK-ee).

The name Agastache (ah-guh-STAK-ee), from Greek, means many (“agan”) spikes (“stachys”), referring to the plant’s numerous flower spikes. As for foeniculum, it refers to another herb, fennel, and the fennel-like taste of the plant.

Certainly not one of the more common culinary and medicinal herbs, anise-hyssop is a rather short-lived but easy-to-grow perennial of the mint family (Lamiaceae) and, in fact, not really all that much like rather shrubby true hyssop (Hyssopus officinalis), itself also fairly obscure, either in form or flavor. Tastewise, anise-hyssop has an anise-like flavor sometimes likened to that of French tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus sativa).

Bees are constat visitors to giant hyssop flowers. Photo: Hellen Linda Drake, http://www.youtube.com

Anise-hyssop is an attractive plant, forming a clump of upright stems bearing oval toothed leaves whitish underneath, each topped by a dense spike of lavender-purple flowers (there is also a white-flowered form, ‘Alabaster’) that bloom on and on all summer, from June to September in the Northern Hemisphere. It’s attractive to bees as well: they love agastaches of all kinds and buzz constantly around the flowers. Giant hyssop is a great choice for honey production as well. 

Hummingbirds also visit the flowers (when the bees aren’t around) as do butterflies. The plant’s licoricelike odor, however, seems to discourage deer, rabbits and other mammals and they leave it alone.   

Given its height, usually about 4 to 5 feet (120–150 cm), anise-hyssop is probably most useful not in the herb garden, where it might shade out its smaller neighbors, but in the back of the flower bed, where its generous, summer-long bloom will be most appreciated.

Dried anise-hyssop flowers. Photo: therunninggarlic.wordpress.com

Anise-hyssop is both a culinary and medicinal herb. In the kitchen, both the flowers and leaves are used as a seasoning and in teas, syrups and salads, sometimes as a substitute for tarragon. If you need a quick breath freshener, munch on a few leaves of its leaves. Dried, the leaves and flowers can be stored for future culinary use or added to potpourris. Medicinally, this eastern and central North American native was used by native peoples to treat wounds, fevers, coughs and diarrhea.

Growing Anise-Hyssop

Seed is more readily available than are plants. Photo: http://www.amazon.com

Giving its obscurity, you’re probably not going to find this plant in your local garden center. Instead, look to specialized herb nurseries for plants, local ones perhaps, otherwise mail order. Seed is easier to find and offered by many mail-order sources that sell herb seeds. 

Starting seed indoors for bloom the first year is possible, but complicated, since it requires a very early start: midwinter (late January or earliest February in the Northern Hemisphere). Since light levels at that season are very low due to short winter days, you’d probably need supplementary lighting to bring this off. The alternative is to start the seeds indoors about 4 to 6 weeks before last frost or even just to sow them outdoors and then to grow them just for their leaves alone the first year, leaving flowering to year two.

Plant in full sun or partial shade, in a fairly rich, slightly acid to neutral, moist but well-drained soil, setting plants about 18 inches (45 cm) apart. 

Once established, Anise-hyssop is quite drought resistant, but it does much better under moist conditions. It’s extremely hardy, to USDA hardiness zone 1, and prefers cool summers and cold winters. As such, it’s not a good choice for warm-winter areas (zones 9 and above). Where summers are hot, do keep it moist.

As time goes on, the base of the plant becomes woody and the plant dies out. Calculate it will be good for about 3 years, then you’ll have to start it anew. Or, more likely, you’ll be able to pick a few to keep from its among numerous seed-grown offspring, as it self-sows generously and can be quite weedy. (Mulching would be a good way of keeping the mother plant moist while preventing excessive self-sowing.)

You can also readily propagate anise-hyssop by stem cuttings.

Other Species

Korean mint (Agastache rugosa). Photo: http://www.mylestaryseeds.com.my

Anise-hyssop is far from the only species of Agastache of interest to gardeners.

Very similar to Anise-hyssop and just as floriferous and useful is Korean mint or purple giant hyssop (A. rugosa), zone 5. A bit shorter, it reaches 3 to 4 feet (90 to 120 cm) tall with dense spikes of lavender-blue flowers. Native throughout temperate eastern Asia, you can think of it as an Asian version of the American A. foeniculum, with a more mint-like scent. As you might expect given its origin, it’s most commonly used in Asian cooking. 

A. rugosa ‘Honey Bee Blue’ is similar to the species, with the same lavender-blue flowers, but is shorter: 2–3 feet (60–90 cm). ‘Honey Bee White’ is a white-flowered version of the same. A. rugosa ‘Little Adder’ is even shorter: 16–18 inches (40–45 cm). It too has lavender-blue flowers. All three bloom all summer and all are just as useful as edible and medicinal plants as ornamentals.

Agastache rugosa ‘Golden Jubilee’. Photo: All-American Selections

Korean mint also gave rise to a popular cultivar with chartreuse-yellow leaves, A. rugosa ‘Golden Jubilee’, an All-America Selections winner for 2003. About 20 inches (50 cm) tall, it’s just as floriferous as the species, but its lime-yellow leaves contain less chlorophyll, so give it full sun. Watch out, though, it does self-sow prolifically. Since it is true-to-type from seed, the seedlings will be chartreuse green and easy to spot if you need to cull or move them. Zone 5.

Yellow giant hyssop (A. nepetoides). Photo: Christopher Noll, wisflora.herbarium.wisc.edu

Another close relative is yellow giant hyssop (A. nepetoides). It’s much bigger than A. foeniculum (up to 9 feet/3 m, although usually no more than 6 feet/2 m), but with pale greenish-yellow to whitish flowers rather sparsely born on green spikes, making it of lesser ornamental value. Although it is not highly scented, it’s used medicinally, notably as a wash in treating poison ivy, and bees still adore it. This eastern North American native is very hardy, to zone 2.

No Self-Sowing

Probably the best anise-hyssop for laidback gardeners are the sterile hybrids, usually just called agastaches. Most are crosses between A. foeniculum and A.rugosa and produce no fertile seed, so there’ll be no annoying self-sown seedlings to cull.

Agastache ‘Blue Fortune’. Photo: http://www.perennialresource.com

A. ‘Blue Fortune’, with lavender-blue spikes produced all season, is the best known and indeed, really an outstanding plant. About 2 to 3 feet (60-90 cm) tall, it’s a real charmer in the middle of the flower border and just doesn’t stop blooming. Be forewarned of its short-lived nature, though, and don’t forget to start it anew from cuttings every 3 years. Zone 4

Others to try are A.‘Blue Boa’ (thick spikes of deep, violet-blue flowers, zone 5) and ‘Black Adder’ (pinkish-lavender flowers arising from deep purple bracts, zone 5).

And Now for Something Completely Different

Agastache ‘Kudos Ambrosia’ is a hybrid variety of hummingbird mint. Photo courtesy of TERRA NOVA® Nurseries, Inc., http://www.terranovanurseries.com

In a totally different category are the so-called hummingbird mints (A. canaA. aurantiacaA. ruprestris and others), with red, orange, pink or purple flowers on much shorter, smaller leaved plants. Native to the North American Southwest, they’re better adapted to dry climates and hot summers and are not very hardy (zone 7, possibly 6 in very well-drained soil). They are also used medicinally and in cooking, but are definitely more minty than anise-like. They’re becoming quite popular as ornamental annuals or, where they are hardy, short-lived perennials.


Whether you call the different species anise-hyssop, giant hyssop, Korean mint, hummingbird mint or just agastache, Agastachespecies are certainly worth discovering as the 2019 Herb of the Year.

Only January, Yet Already Time to Sow Seeds?

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It’s only January! Surely it’s too soon to sow seeds? Source: worldartsme.com, rdkate.blogspot.ca & mzayat. com

The new year has barely begun, yet now and over the coming month it’s already time to start certain seeds indoors.

This is a very select group of especially slow-to-mature plants. January is far too early for most seeds (think March or April instead), but you need about four to five months of indoor culture to bring the following plants to the right state of growth for outdoor planting.

  1. Agastache (Agastache foeniculum)
  2. Datura (Datura metel)
  3. Fairy Snapdragon (Chaenorrhinum origanifolium, syn. glaerosum)
  4. Lisianthus (Eustoma grandiflora)
  5. Spike dracaena or cabbage palm (Cordyline australis, syn. indivisa)
  6. Tritome (Kniphofia )
  7. Tuberous Begonia (Begonia × tuberhybrida)

No Easy Feat!

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Artificial light is almost essential for seeds started in January. Source: laidbackgardener. blog

Starting seed in January in the Northern Hemisphere is not simple. The days are short, the sun is weak and, in many areas, the weather is gray more often than sunny, meaning light is seriously lacking. Also, temperatures in front of the average windowsill are cool, yet almost all seeds need warmth—and fairly even temperatures—to germinate well. As a result, you pretty much have to start these under artificial lights, such as fluorescent or LED plant lights, and in the warmest part of your home.

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Germinate the seedlings under glass, possibly over a heating pad, as above. Source: www.amazon.fr

Always start winter-sown seeds “under glass” (under some sort of transparent covering) to maintain high humidity and stable temperatures and in a room that is at least moderately warm (72 to 75˚ F/21 to 24˚ C) or place the seed containers on a heating pad (one specifically designed for plants). Use a timer to set the day length of your lamp at 14 hours to simulate the long days of summer and place the containers of freshly sown seeds about 6 to 12 inches (15 to 30 cm) below the lamp. Now, wait patiently for germination to occur. (One reason that certain seeds need early sowing is that they are slow to germinate.)

Seeds That Require a Cold Treatment

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Many tree, shrub and perennial seeds need a cold treatment before they will germinate. Source: laidbackgardener. blog

January (or December or February) is also a good time to start seeds that need a cold treatment (cold stratification) to germinate well. This group includes most trees and shrubs from cold and temperate climates, but also many perennials and even a few annuals.

These seeds will not germinate until they have received a given number of days of cool, moist conditions, from as little as one or two weeks to four months or more, information you would (hopefully) find on the seed pack.

The number of weeks given is the minimum requirement for that species, but there is no maximum. So, if you keep seeds that need, say, a two-week treatment in the cold for two months, that’s not a problem. That’s nice to know, because the information on the minimum cold treatment for seed X is not always available, especially for seed you harvested yourself. If you don’t know, I suggest giving seeds of perennials a six to eight-week cold treatment: that’s usually enough. For trees and shrubs, I’d recommend three months.

Simply sow these seeds in a container as you would any other, then seal them inside a clear plastic bag and pop them into the refrigerator or cold room for at least the minimum number of weeks. Afterwards, move them to a warm, well-lit spot, on a windowsill or under lights, for germination to start.

100 Seeds That Need a Cold Treatment

Here are 100 plants that germinate best with a cold treatment (there are thousands of others!). Check the seed envelope or the seed supplier’s web site for more information.

  1. Abies (fir)
  2. Acer (maple, mosts species)
  3. Aconitum (aconite)
  4. Alchemilla (lady’s mantle)
  5. Allium (ornemental onion)
  6. Amelanchier (serviceberry)
  7. Aquilegia (columbine)
  8. Asclepias (milkweed, some species)
  9. Astrantia (masterwort)
  10. Baptisia (false indigo)
  11. Buddleia (butterfly bush)
  12. Caltha (marsh marigold)
  13. Caryopteris (bluebeard)
  14. Cercis canadensis (redbud)
  15. Chelone (turtlehead)
  16. Cimicifuga (bugbane)
  17. Clematis (clematis)
  18. Cornus (dogwood)
  19. Corydalis (fumitory)
  20. Delphinium (delphinium)
  21. Dicentra spectabilis, now Lamprocapnos spectabilis (bleeding heart)
  22. Dictamnus (gas plant)
  23. Dodecatheon (shooting star)
  24. Echinacea (purple coneflower)
  25. Eremurus (foxtail lily)
  26. Eryngium (sea holly)
  27. Eupatorium (Joe Pye weed)
  28. Filipendula (meadowsweet)
  29. Forsythia (forsythia)
  30. Fragaria (strawberry)
  31. Fuchsia (fuchsia)
  32. Gentiana (gentian)
  33. Geranium (perennial geranium, cranesbill)
  34. Goniolimon (German statice)
  35. Helianthemum (rock rose)
  36. Helianthus (perennial sunflower)
  37. Heliopsis (false sunflower)
  38. Helleborus (Christmas rose)
  39. Hemerocallis (daylily)
  40. Heuchera (coral bells)
  41. Hibiscus moscheutos (perennial hibiscus)
  42. Hypericum (St. John’s wort)
  43. Iberis (perennial candytuft)
  44. Ilex* (holly)
  45. Incarvillea (hardy gloxinia)
  46. Iris (iris, many species)
  47. Kirengeshoma (waxbells)
  48. Knautia (knautia)
  49. Lathyrus (perennial sweet pea)
  50. Lavandula (lavender)
  51. Leontopodium (edelweiss)
  52. Lobelia (hardy lobelia)
  53. Lonicera (honeysuckle)
  54. Macleaya (plume poppy)
  55. Magnolia* (magnolia)
  56. Malus (apple, crabapple)
  57. Mazus (creeping mazus)
  58. Mertensia (Virginia bluebells)
  59. Muscari (grape hyacinth)
  60. Myrrhis odorata (sweet cicely)
  61. Nepeta (catmint)
  62. Oenothera (evening Primrose)
  63. Opuntia* (beavertail cactus)
  64. Paeonia* (pivoine)
  65. Penstemon (beard-tongue)
  66. Persicaria (fleeceflower)
  67. Persicaria orientalis, syn. Polygonum orientale (kiss-me-over-the-garden-gate)
  68. Phlox (phlox)
  69. Physalis (Chinese lantern)
  70. Picea (spruce)
  71. Platycodon (balloon flower)
  72. Primula (primrose)
  73. Pulsatilla (pasque flower)
  74. Quercus (red and black oaks)
  75. Ranunculus (buttercup)
  76. Ratibida (prairie coneflower)
  77. Rosa (rose)
  78. Rudbeckia (black-eyed Susan)
  79. Sambucus (elderberry)
  80. Sanguinaria (bloodroot)
  81. Sanguisorba (burnet)
  82. Saponaria (soapwort)
  83. Saxifraga (saxifrage)
  84. Scabiosa (pincushion flower)
  85. Sedum (stonecrop)
  86. Sempervivum (houseleek)
  87. Sidalcea (prairie mallow)
  88. Staphylea* (bladdernut)
  89. Stokesia (Stokes’ aster)
  90. Syringa (lilac)
  91. Thalictrum (meadow-rue)
  92. Tiarella (foamflower)
  93. Tricyrtis (toad-lily)
  94. Trillium* (trillium)
  95. Trollius (globeflower)
  96. Tsuga (hemlock)
  97. Vernonia (ironweed)
  98. Veronica (speedwell)
  99. Viola (violets)
  100. Vitis (grape, some species)
*Some species in this genus require a double cold stratification: that is, two cold treatments separated by warm one, to germinate well. Try two to three months of cold followed by two months of warmth, then again two to three months of cold. When you expose them to warmth after these repeated treatments, most will germinate quite readily.

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