My garden overall, is, like most things during the winter, primarily waiting for Spring. So I thought this would be a good time to begin focusing on the specific plants I have.
Today, as it is one of the first non-typical plants I have acquired, I thought I would begin with the Star Anise.
First and most importantly, it is critical that should you wish to grow your own star anise, you order your plant from a reputable nursery. Don’t get me wrong, I support all of the home growers that have their own Etsy or Facebook shops to sell plants and seeds, but star anise is not a plant you want to get from one of them. This is because there is another plant that is virtually indistinguishable from the edible star anise….and it is dangerously toxic.
The star anise that flavors pho so nicely is Illicium verum.
Its toxic relative from Japan is Illicium anisatum, which can cause epilepsy, hallucinations, nausea, and severe inflammation of the kidneys, and the urinary and digestive tracts.
To botanists, there are ways to tell these two plants apart by using microscopy. To anyone who wouldn’t know what to look for and/or doesn’t use a microscope in their identification, they are virtually identical. Even the seed pods — the familiar brown stars — are very, very similar with only minor and inconsistent differences in the fruits and seeds.
So therefore, if you plan on using your star anise in your cooking, I do highly recommend that you get it from a nursery that is sure to have the correct plant and not the toxic one. If you are merely wanting an ornamental, then either plant will do as long as you don’t ever try to use the seeds for flavor. Be safe. Don’t guess on this one.
Now that we’ve gotten the warning out of the way, let’s talk about the star anise itself — the edible one.
The anise tree is an evergreen that likes tropical and subtropical climates and will grow 15-30′ tall but can be kept pruned into a hedge. In its native areas, it is an understory plant that likes dappled part-sun or even shade, but it can tolerate full sun, especially in colder regions. In my zone 8, I am just a the northern tip of its range as it can withstand some frost, but nothing below 15° F (-10° C). As long as mine remains small, I will keep it potted and bring it in for the winters, But if it grows too large, I will likely root a cutting from it to keep indoors (just for security) then attempt to let the mature plant overwinter outside. Maybe covering it with some plastic or deep mulch — or both — for extra protection.
For soil, the anise likes a rich compost that is moist without being waterlogged. It prefers a neutral to slightly acidic pH somewhere about 6-7. Though I could not find the specific root type of the star anise plant (and I was hesitant to overly disturb my own plant after having subjected it to freezing temperatures during its initial shipping), it is related to the magnolia. Unlike most trees, magnolias do not have a taproot and instead have ropey roots that stay close to the soil surface. Under the assumption that anise has the same root design, it would be best to place an anise tree in a wide, but not overly deep, pot. If planting outside, be sure to locate well away from foundations that might be damaged by invading roots.
Anise can flower twice per year in the summer, so keeping it well composted will help it maintain the energy it needs. It shouldn’t need more fertilizer than that. It can be pinched back to make a bushier form and will take about 6 years from planting a seed to a first harvest, though even pruning the tree will release a lovely waft of the familiar scent. The flowers are a frilly white and the fruit look like plump, lobed pincushions. They should be harvested before fully ripe, then dried to make the familiar spice. To dry, lay the green fruit on a screen in the sun until they turn brown, but cover with a cloth or second screen because the drying fruits will sometimes shoot the very seeds you’re wanting!