An anise scent and flavor is the common thread that connects a variety of different herbs. The intensity of the flavor varies so much from plant to plant, however, that even those who don't care for the stronger licorice taste of fennel might enjoy sweeter anise or very mild chervil.
Although all members of this grouping are used for culinary purposes, the part of the plant that's utilized is not always the same. For instance, we use the seeds of anise and fennel, the leaves of all varieties, the stalks of fennel, the flowers of anise hyssop and the roots of fennel and licorice.
Most of these herbs are also valued for their ornamental additions to gardens, and the harvested flowers of anise hyssop are often used in dried flower arrangements.
ANISE (Pimpinella anisum) is the common anise, a delicate annual that grows from 1 1/2 to 2 feet high. Two types of leaves grow on the same plant--bright green, oval ones with toothed edges at the base and a smaller, more feathery, elongated type on the stems.
Because anise has a tap root, it does not transplant well once established, so be certain to plant it where it is to remain. Tiny white flowers grow in umbrella-like clusters at the top of the stems.
The plants like light, fertile, well-drained soil and full sun. Anise may be started from either seeds or small plants. Water regularly. The leaves may be cut as soon as the plants are large enough. Gather the seeds when they ripen and change color from green to brown, then dry and store in tight containers.
The sweet flavor of anise seeds is especially good for flavoring cookies, other pastries and confections. Use the feathery leaves in salads and to flavor fish and poultry.
ANISE HYSSOP (Agastache foeniculum) is also known as licorice mint. A perennial, it may be grown from seeds, small plants or divisions of the creeping root. Anise Hyssop grows up to 3 feet in height and likes rich, moist soil and full sun.
The gray-green leaves have toothed edges and whitish undersides. They make a nice addition to fruit salads, may be used in tea and other drinks or added to potpourri. The plant's spiky, violet flowers are pretty as garnishes and add flavor to baked goods, sweet-sour marinades or Chinese-style dishes. They are also attractive in dried arrangements.
CHERVIL (Anthriscus cerefolium) looks similar to parsley, in fact, it's sometimes referred to as the gourmet's parsley. Like anise, chervil is an annual that grows from 1 to 2 feet high and because of its tap root, is not easily transplanted. Grow it from seed or small plants. By planting several crops two weeks apart you can ensure an ongoing supply.
Chervil plants prefer semi-shade and may be trained as an edging or grown in containers. Water regularly. The lacy leaves are lighter green than parsley; delicate white flowers grow in flat heads. By pinching off most of the flowers you'll prolong growth of the leaves, but leave a few and the plant will reseed itself.
The leaves may be cut as soon as the plants are large enough (six to eight weeks) and used, much the same as parsley, in soups, salads, sauces and herb butters. Chervil is a key ingredient in bearnaise sauce and in fines herbes blends with parsley, chives and tarragon. It also makes a good addition to vinaigrettes or marinades.
FENNEL (Foeniculum vulgare), common or sweet fennel, is similar in appearance to dill and may grow up to 6 feet tall. The light-green leaves are finely divided into threadlike segments on tall, round, hollow stems. At the top are flat clusters of yellow flowers.
Like the anise herbs, fennel may be grown from seed or small plants. It thrives in light, well drained soil and full sun. You may need to stake the plants after they're about 1 1/2 feet tall. Once established, fennel is fairly drought resistant and reseeds itself readily.
Use the leaves in soups, stews, salads and marinades. Cut only the top couple inches from the plants to ensure new growth. They'll stay fresh up to a week in the refrigerator if the stems are in water and tops covered with a plastic bag.
When using the stems, they should be cut just before flowers form (while they're still tender). Braise and serve as a vegetable, or prepare and use in the same way as celery. Fennel seeds, which should be harvested when they turn brown, are a popular flavoring for breads, spiced beets and sauerkraut.
There are two other varieties of fennel generally available. Bronze fennel (F.v. rubrum), so named for the color of its foliage, may be used as a culinary herb as well as an ornamental plant.
Florence fennel (F.v. azoricum), also called finocchio, is a lower-growing species that develops a bulbous base (which is used as a vegetable) when grown in cooler weather. Start the plant in the fall, and when the base is about the size of an egg, pile soil up around it so no light enters. It should be ready to harvest in about two to three weeks. This variety has a flavor slightly sweeter and less strong than common fennel.
LICORICE (Glycyrrhiza glabra) is grown for its roots, mainly used to flavor commercial products and in medicines. Seeds and small plants are available to consumers, however, and leaves and seeds may be used as well as the roots.
Grow this perennial in a rich, moist soil and a sheltered sunny place. It will reach 3 feet or more in height and have long, narrow, dark-green divided leaves, pale blue-white pea-flowers and long pods of hard seeds. The tap root has several long branches, which are wrinkled and brown, with yellow flesh. Harvest the roots in the autumn of the third or fourth year.
SWEET CICELY (Myrrhis odorata) may also be referred to as sweet or giant chervil. It's a hardy perennial that grows 2 to 3 feet high with finely divided leaves and cream-colored flowers. Sweet Cicely plants are said to resemble parsley.
Grow from seeds planted in the fall, root divisions or small plants in rich, moist, well-drained soil. Seeds take up to eight months to germinate. Sweet Cicely grows best in shade or semi-shade. The tap root makes it difficult to transplant.
Every part of this plant is edible. The sweet leaves enhance salads or fruit tarts, use the spicy green seeds in salad and the ripe ones in soups, apple pie or other baked desserts. The roots may be eaten raw, boiled or steamed as a vegetable. They also make a good addition to stir-fried dishes.
TARRAGON: Although there are two varieties, French tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus) is the preferred culinary species of this herb. Its smooth, slender, dark-green leaves are pointed at the ends and have a mild anise scent and flavor.
French tarragon doesn't produce fertile seeds, so must be started from small plants or root divisions. The woody perennial grows rather prostrate and slowly by underground rhizomes. It does best in fast-draining soil and partial sun, but also grows well in containers and hanging baskets. Do not over water or the plants may develop root rot.
Tarragon goes dormant in the winter. Don't despair even if the plants turn brown over the winter, they will more than likely regenerate themselves in the spring.
When harvesting French tarragon, snip the tips, but be sure to leave about 3 inches growth to keep plants vigorous. Fresh tarragon has far greater flavor than dried. Longer sprigs are ideal for flavoring vinegar. Leaves may be used to flavor salad dressings, sauces, butters and soups. Like chervil, tarragon is a key ingredient in fines herbes blends.
Russian tarragon (A. dracunculoids) looks almost identical to the French, but has a much milder, grassy flavor. Mexican tarragon (Tagetes lucida) is also called Anise Scented Marigold and Yerbanais. It grows about 1 1/2 feet tall and has toothed leaves and single orange-gold flowers. This variety may be grown from seeds in a sheltered sunny place. The leaves can be used in soups or tea.