Every now and then an obscure plant creeps quietly into my life, and makes a home for itself in my garden. After a while I wonder what I ever did without it.
Anise hyssop was just such a revelation. About 25 years ago, a nurserywoman in Gaylordsville, Conn., named Kathleen Nelson, who had introduced me to many great garden perennials, sent me the plant via a visiting friend. Though it had minty-tasting foliage, I decided it was pretty enough for the flower border. It settled in vigorously, growing to 3 feet and producing excellent purple-blue fuzzy spikes from midsummer to fall. I noticed that the butterflies were enthusiastic about it, the bees positively gaga.
As a late-blooming plant for the flower border, it was exemplary. It bloomed for months, never needed staking, and proved to be a perfect “blending” plant. Those soft, vertical, violet spikes interwove the strong splashes of red heleniums, orange butterfly weed and other late summer prima donnas, both in bouquets and in the ground. It proved quite winter hardy, though sometimes it would disappear from one spot and pop up somewhere else.
If it had one fault, it was the tendency to sow a broadloom carpet of itself in the surrounding area. But unlike the true mints and the bee balms, it did not spread by underground runners, and extra seedlings were easily banished with a cultivating hoe.
The plant’s name is confusing. I’ve heard it called Agastache anista, but the correct botanical name is Agastache foeniculum, (Ah-gah-STAH-kee Fuh-NICK-you-lum), which alludes to the leaves’ fennel-like flavor. Though its chief common name is anise hyssop, it is neither a hyssop not an anise. Another common name is licorice mint, though it is neither a mint nor a licorice.
Most of the lore about anise hyssop treats it as a medicinal herb. In the American prairie states, where it originated, it’s expectorant qualities made it a treatment for respiratory infections. Native Americans made a cough syrup from its leaves. It also grows wild in Mexico, and in many parts of Asia where medical use is traditional.
When I finally got around to cooking with anise hyssop, I fell in love with its unique flavor — a subtle combination of mint and anise, with an almost sugary sweetness. For this reason, it has now taken root in my kitchen garden as well. I use the leaves liberally in salads, especially ones with soft greens such as lettuces. The leaves, steeped in boiling water, make an excellent tea or, with honey added, a tasty syrup. (Just don’t think of it as cough syrup.) It lends itself to many dessert recipes, such as custards, ice creams or sorbets. I like it in fruit tarts.
It also pairs well with vegetables that, because of their freshness and tenderness, have an almost dessert-like quality, such as just-picked corn, or baby carrots. Recently I tried it with some late-crop fresh peas, in a sauce of reduced cream.
Try some sprigs — with their blossoms — in a tall glass of iced tea, or in a summery rum and tonic. At the season’s end, the leaves can be dried for winter use, or steeped in vinegar for winter salads.
Sometimes I use certain herbs as low, seasonal hedges that divide one section of the kitchen garden from another. Catnip, tarragon and parsley have all played this role. One year I planted a 20-foot-long bed of anise hyssop to hide my sunflowers’ leggy bottoms. What a gorgeous combination that was.
Meanwhile, back in the world of ornamental horticulture, somebody has decided to make anise hyssop a star. There is now a superlative variety called Blue Wonder that is bigger and bushier than the original, with slightly showier spikes.
Maybe not as tasty, but showy in the perennial border. It’s a cross between A. foeniculum and A. rugosum, commonly called Korean mint. The leaves are a bit crinkly. There are also varieties in shades of orange, pink, white and multicolored, the result of work with other Agastache species. Some are low-growing, and many are not as winter hardy, but they all tend to bloom the first year from seed and make good container plants.
And the bees keep coming, lured by a nectar supply that flows all day in great abundance. The honey that results is prized for its fragrance and flavor.
There is even a chartreuse yellow-leaved version called Golden Jubilee, named in celebration of Queen Elizabeth’s 50-year reign. Some yellow-leaved plants look odd, but this one is a handsome foil for the purple flowers. Who knows to what heights anise hyssop may yet go. But back here among the sunflowers and the cucumbers, we knew it when.