It's seasonal, and I am in the holiday mood now after our trip, so here you go:
The Scent of Christmas - December 2010
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.
I do grow Anise Hyssop, or Agastache, which has an anise scent to its foliage when you touch it. I have 'Purple Haze'. It's one of those workhorse drought tolerant plants that just goes all summer with no care, although it does flop a bit in a charming kind of way.
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|
|Eeeeww. Star anise stinky 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. I'm sorry, but it doesn't smell like anise to me|
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. 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.
Mmmm. May you have as delightful memories of holidays and family.
And an update:
I packed tins of anise cookies in my luggage on our trip, and each son's eyes lit up like Christmas lights with the first bite. They are grown men, living and working on the other side of the continent from me, but a tin of anise cookies brought them home again for a moment.