Star anise is a widely used spice which gets its name because of its star shaped fruit appearance. If you are a fan of exotic dishes, then you should try to grow this tree in your backyard. To do so you will need to have some space, as it can grow quite large, and live in a somewhat tropical or subtropical climate. This tree is ornamental, as well, since it grows very beautiful white flowers and bright green large, glossy leaves.
Star Anise Name Confusions
Star anise (Illicium verum) is completely different than anise (Pimpinella anisum) even though both plants have a similar name and taste. Star anise is a tree that can grow between 25 and 50 feet in height and up to 10 feet in width, while anise is a 2 feet tall herb.
This tree is known as Chinese anise and is native to southern China, Mongolia and northern Vietnam. Many people confuse Chinese anise with Japanese anise (Illicium anisatum) or “Shikimi,” which is a poisonous plant native to Japan. Seeds or fruits are quite similar to star anise, however they are a bit smaller and look more like cardamom, since they are rounder and have a small hook. Swamp star anise (Illicium parvifloru) and Florida Anise (llicium floridanum) are other variety to add to the possible list of confusions.
Star Anise Uses
The spice produced from these trees is commonly used in Asian dishes, especially in curries and meats. Star anise’s flavor is similar to licorice, but it also has a hint of clove and cinnamon. It is said to be sweeter than sugar because of anethole, a compound found in the fruit. Which is why it is commonly added to coffee, beverages and desserts.
It is one of the “Five Chinese Spices” which includes pepper, fennel seeds, cloves, and cinnamon. Its strong and spicy flavor is also used in many Indian recipes, including “Garam masala”. This spice is the main seasoning for the popular Vietnamese “pho” broth.
This fruit is used whole in many recipes, but it is usually removed before serving. It can also be ground which gives it more versatility.
How to Reproduce Star Anise
You can start your seeds indoors or outdoors if the temperature is at least 65-70 F (18-21 C). Seeds do not last long, so it is recommended to get fresh seeds and plant them within three days of harvesting. Another option is to store the seeds in a bag or container with moist sand in the refrigerator up to a month. Seeds you buy in the grocery store will not germinate.
Put your seeds in a bowl with water. Check which ones float to the surface and discard them as they are not viable. Only plant seeds that sink. You can plant your seeds in a container or directly in the garden, just make sure the soil stays moist. It can take between one to two months for your seeds to germinate. Transfer them to individual pots once they are 3-4 inches tall. Place them in individual pots for the first year and take them outside when the weather is warm.
It is also possible to grow star anise from a cutting that is at least four inches long. Cut it with a sharp knife or pruning scissors. Place the cutting in a mixture of peat or sand with perlite and wait for the roots to grow. Many nurseries sell this tree for those who prefer convenience.
Plant this tree somewhere it has partial shade if you are in a warmer area. Those that have cooler climates should plant it in a sunny location where it not exposed to cold or dry winds. This tree needs hot weather to survive, so it is suitable to be planted in USDA zones 8 through 11.
Those that live in cooler areas can plant it in a very big container to move indoors during the winter. Make sure the container has holes to drain the excess water so the roots won’t rot. Star anise is a frost tender perennial, which means that it will not survive in cold temperatures where there is frost. It can survive some cold weather but not snow.
Prune and pinch the plant when it’s still young if you want to make it bushier. This tree has no special pruning requirements, but its a good idea to remove weak, diseased or dead branches. When the tree is cut it releases a spicy fragrance. Its leaves smell like licorice when crushed, but they are not used for culinary purposes.
Star anise likes slightly acid soil, with a pH between 6.0 and 7.0, that has constant moisture. If you have poor soil, then it’s a good idea to apply slow release fertilizer. Also to surround your tree with a layer of compost or aged manure every spring.
This tree is not really susceptible to pests and diseases. It has antibacterial compounds that protect it.
How to Harvest Star Anise
It takes 6 years to be able to harvest the fruit from these trees which is usually called seeds. Those who want to speed up the process can buy a more established tree. People pick the fruits when they are green and are unripe. They are left to sun dry until they turn reddish-brown.
Seeds are removed once the fruits can be stored. Every fruit has six to eight carpels that each contain a seed.