The flowering herb anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum) makes a dramatic addition to the garden, with its dark purple spikes and licorice-scented foliage. Cooks treasure anise hyssop's flowers and leaves in both savory and sweet recipes, while honey makers and organic gardeners appreciate its reputation as a bee-attracting flower. Other names by which Agastache foeniculum is known include blue giant hyssop and root beer plant.
From a distance, anise hyssop looks a bit like a more intensely colored, bushier lavender. The herb's deep purple spikes top this perennial plant, which grows between two to four feet tall and one foot across. The small, intensely-colored flowers growi along the six inch blossom spikes. The foliage resembles that of mints, a group to which hyssop is related.
Anise hyssop shares no horticultural ties to common hyssop. Instead, the herb belongs to the Agastache genus--itself a member of the Lamiaceae, or mint, family. The name Agastace means "very spiky" in Greek, a term that describes not just anise hyssop, but other Agastace plants, including Korean mint, mosquito plant and 'Tutti Frutti' hyssop.
In the Garden
Anise hyssop's height makes it perfect to use in the back of a flower border. "Herb Companion" magazine suggests pairing it with Japanese anemones or companulas in the flower garden, or garlic chives, oregano and thyme in the herb garden. Some gardeners leave their plants un-pruned at summer's end, leaving the seed heads for winter interest and to attract curious birds.
Along with its tradition of flavoring honey, anise hyssop boasts a stellar tradition in the baking world. Herbal chef and gardener Patricia Lanza suggests adding the chopped flowers to rolls and sugar cookies, while preserve makers use them to spice up peach or apricot jams or in an ice-cream syrup. Use the leaves and flowers to add complexity to beef and pork dishes. Both flowers and leaves can substitute for the spice anise in most recipes.
Dry the leaves or flowers---or both---for use as a licorice-like herbal tea that pairs well with muffins and tea breads. Native Americans used the teas medicinally to treat depression, according to "Herb Companion."
Beekeepers revere anise hyssop for its legendary bee-attracting qualities. It may have to do with the herb's long flowering period, color and shape, or pollen-rich flowers. Whatever the reason, the attraction has led to the famous anise honey, a sweet treat tasting faintly of licorice and mint. If you can't find this treat at a gourmet store, make the delicacy by warming dried anise hyssop leaves or anise hyssop tea bags in a saucepan with the honey, or leaving the honey-herb mixture on a sunny windowsill to steep. (Putting the leaves in cheesecloth or a tea ball makes straining much easier, although a few herbal speckles add interest to the honey.)
Use the leaves and flowers in potpourri. Both bring a licorice-like, complex scent to the mixture, while the flowers dry to a striking dark blue-purple. The aromatic stems and flowers also work well in dried herbal or floral wreaths. Freshly-cut flowers add color and vertical interest to indoor floral arrangements.
Reliably perennial in zones 3 to 8, anise hyssop doesn't ask for much in the way of special soil amendments. It prefers a sunny garden and appreciates afternoon shade in the hotter parts of its growing region. Grow it from seed or buy nursery-started seedlings.