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.