Of the handful of wildflowers featuring top clusters of small white flowers in an umbel, anise root (Osmorhia longistylis) is the first to come into bloom. Best known for its spicy seeds and sweet roots, this useful and beneficial plant can easily be confused with poison hemlock by the untrained eye, so be sure that you are definitely dealing with anise root before putting it to use. Anise root, also known as sweet cicely, is similar in taste and flavor to anise (Pimpinella ansium), an important culinary spice. Both anise and anise root have long histories of medicinal and culinary use.
Identifying Anise Root
Anise root blooms in April and May with umbels of white flowers that are roughly three inches in diameter. These umbels are less dense than those on the similar Queen Anne’s lace but are not as compounded as those of poison hemlock. This native perennial reaches one and a half to three feet in height and has pinately divided leaves that are not nearly as severely divided as the leaflets of Queen Anne’s lace or poison Hemlock. Berries of anise root are slender, black fruits with barbs that aid in the transportation of the seeds through hitching a ride on birds, mammals and humans. If you suspect that you have spotted anise root, the sure fire way to identify this plant is to bruise its roots. If the root has a sweet anise aroma, you are dealing with anise root. If the root has a foul, unpleasant stench, you are mistaken and are looking the deadly poison hemlock.
Medicinal and Culinary Uses of Anise Root
Anise root has traditionally been used as the key ingredient in a tonic brewed to settle an upset stomach and dispel nausea. Although anise root is not actually a close relative to true anise, it is similar enough to serve a similar purpose when dried a ground as a spice. Many wild food lovers simply boil the tap root whole and enjoy it is as a side dish.
Cultivating Anise Root
Anise root can be propagated by directly sowing seeds collected from dry seed heads. This plant requires regularly moist soil, so be sure no to let it dry out between waterings.
Fielbook of Natural History. Palmer and Fowler. McGraw Hill: Boston, 1975.