Exploring my new yard has led to many lovely surprises, and this week I discovered one more. There’s a flower I’ve been trying to grow for years: anise hyssop, or Agastache foeniculum (pronounced ag-ah-STACK-ee foe-NIK-yoo-lum). It’s a medium-sized, licorice-scented plant with spikey purple blossoms that are supposed to be very attractive to butterflies and hummingbirds. Over the years, I’ve probably bought four different plants from garden centers and catalogs, and every single one has given up the ghost within a single season. According to the growing guidelines, they love full sun and need good drainage, which made them seem like a perfect fit for the garden I had at the time: sun all day long with not a lot of rain in summer. Well, after the fourth casualty, I figured they were just too finicky for me to bother with.
So imagine my surprise when I was walking my dog around the back of the yard earlier this week and I spotted some very familiar purple spikes shooting up from the brush at the edge of the woods. Could it be that the plant I had had such trouble keeping alive was actually a wildflower? Normally, native plants are the old reliables in the garden, the things you can’t kill even if you want to. But, sure enough, when I got closer to examine the flowers and leaves–and inhale the unmistakable scent of licorice–it was clear that the plant I couldn’t persuade to grow in my garden five miles away was flourishing all on its own here. There was a whole patch of it, covering several square yards. And the funny part? It’s in part shade here. And in the worst-drained area of the yard! Hm…in spite of the experts’ opinions, the agastache seems to be voting with its feet…er, roots.
Those of you who’ve been reading my blog for a while won’t be surprised that the first thing I wanted to know, once I’d discovered this stand of anise hyssop, was whether it was edible. My guess was yes, because it resembles mint, and every member of the mint family I’ve come across so far has been edible. (Though not all of them are equally tasty, I have to say.) Well, my researches confirmed my hunch. FineGardening.com says the flowers are “charming crumbled into salads.” And Wikipedia mentions that anise hyssop was “used medicinally by Native Americans for cough, fevers, wounds, diarrhea. The soft, anise-scented leaves are used as a seasoning, as a tea, and in potpourri.” As soon as I saw the word ‘tea,’ I was out the door with scissors…
The result was exactly what one would hope: a licorice-flavored tea. Although, technically, it’s not a “tea,” because there are no tea leaves in it. It’s an infusion–a fancy word for something that’s been steeped in boiling water. I put blossoms as well as leaves in mine, and added just a drop of honey. It made for a wonderfully aromatic start to a cool September day.
If you don’t have any wild anise hyssop in your own yard–and think you’d have more success cultivating it than I did–you can find several varieties for sale at Bluestone Perennials. It’s my guess that they don’t all make equally flavorful infusions. The varieties closest to the wild strain are probably going to be your best bet, since they’ve been less heavily selected for their aesthetics.
Note: Before sampling any wild foods in your own backyard, make sure to identify them using at least two separate reputable sources (with clear photos). If anything in the description or photo doesn’t match the plant you’re looking at, it’s probably because it’s not the right plant. Wild foods are great, but it takes time to become familiar with them. And it’s very important to know what you’re tasting. That said, bon appétit!