December 12, 2010

The Scent of Christmas

Pimpinella anisum from Wikipedia
Christmas does not smell like pine needles or balsam fir to me.  The season is not evoked by cinnamon or cloves or peppermint.

All those are wonderful scents, but the one Christmas aroma that makes me shiver with pleasure is the smell of a Mediterranean evergreen shrub's seeds: Pimpinella anisum.

Anise (not to be confused with star anise, which is Illicium) is a plant that looks to me a little like Queen Anne's Lace.  The seeds are used for herbal remedies and flavoring.  And it's that flavoring, the anise extract, that brings Christmas home to me the minute I smell it.

My mother made anise Christmas cookies every year and I make them now.  They were not elaborate pressed cookies or springerles or the Italian anise cookies you can find.  They were really just an iced sugar cookie with anise extract added, cut into Christmas shapes.  I love them.

Descriptions of anise flavor always say it tastes like licorice or tarragon, but it really doesn't.  It has a whiff of licorice, but it is much, much lighter, almost citrusy or even minty.  It is very refreshing.

Still, it's a taste that is not to everyone's liking.  Santa likes these cookies, and I love them so much I like to have a little anise in my garden. But I can't grow Pimpinella in my zone 5 garden.
'Purple Haze' Agastache on the right

I do grow Anise Hyssop, or Agastache, which has an anise scent to its foliage when you touch it.  Agastache is a great plant, with tall spikes of blooms all summer long that bees love.  Mine is a deep blue called 'Purple Haze' and it anchors the back of my garden with its tall frothy spikes.  It's one of those workhorse drought tolerant plants that just goes all summer with no care.

There are other plants with anise scened leaves.  The most notable is Illicium floridanum, called star anise or purple anise, which is a beautiful dense evergreen shrub with glossy leathery leaves.  The leaves emit a fragrance of anise when crushed. 
Purple Anise, Illicium floridanum
I'd love to grow it, but there are a couple reasons I won't.  It is not hardy here, although I could put it in a container and bring it onto the porch over winter.  The other reason: it has stinky flowers.  The aroma is consistently described as smelling like fish.  How can a plant with leaves that carry the essential fragrance of Christmas for me have unpleasant flowers?  Who thought up that combination?  
Eeeeww.  Illicium floridanum bloom

Salvia guaranitica, Black and Blue Sage, is called Anise Sage.  I grow it, and it's a beautiful large sage with vibrant deep blue flowers.  But the leaves do not smell like anise.  When you crush them you get an interesting sharp scent, but it's not anise.
Anise Sage. It doesn't smell like anise

There is an anise scented goldenrod, Solidago odora, a native plant that is supposed to have leaves that smell like anise when they are crushed.  I could try that.  But I'm not sure where I'd put these big weedy stalks in my garden.
Anise scented goldenrod

There is also an anise scented basil I could grow in my garden . . .  but wait, now we're getting confused.  I mean, basil should smell like basil.  I like basil and I like anise.  I'm not sure what you gain by having one smell like the other.

In fact I'm not sure what I gain by trying to replicate such a specific and evocative memory of a smell in my garden.  While anise does come from the seeds of a plant, it's not the plant that carries the delight.

It's the cookies.  It's the season, it's childhood, my mother, and Santa.  It's snow and it's good stuff baking.  I really don't need to grow anise scented plants in my garden --- I just need to make sure there is anise extract in my pantry.    Mmmmm.


  1. And we'll be making mother's anisw cookies this week.... with lots of little hands to help decorate!

  2. The leaves of Illicium don't just smell like fish... but like dead fish. Ugh. And whoever say that Brazilian Blue Sage smells like anise has a very optimistic nose!

  3. So many sweet things to smell at this time of year. I'm a traditionalist though when it comes to Christmas. Give me a fresh tree and I'm in heaven

  4. Lisa, amazing how a blog post can make a reader hungry!

    Anonymous (a.k.a. Gail, I can tell by the typos), have a great time baking with all your little helpers!

    Sweetbay, dead fish? That's just awful. For such a pretty shrub Illicium has some real liabilities.

    Marguerite, you really are a tree lover!

  5. Hi, Laurrie;
    Great post. I love Anise. I do put it in cookies but I don't think I ever gave much thought to it until I planted a drift of Hyssop in my street garden. The bees and butterflies and go crazy...

  6. Kate, I only have the one Hyssop (Agastache) plant and your drift of them sounds so nice. I'm going to plant more! They really do hum with bees and butterflies all summer.


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