The other day I bought some fresh Anise Hyssop at a farmer's market. It was quite inexpensive, $1.50 for a massive bunch. Unfortunately, I did not think to write this post until after I used up the last of the leaves, so I have no photograph of the actual bunch that I bought. Here is a photo courtesy of Wayne Ray at Wikimedia Commons:
Anise hyssop is a plant in the mint family. Although it looks a lot like "regular" hyssop (Hyssopus sp.), hence the name, it is not closely related; both of these plants are in the mint family but are not closely related beyond that. Anise hyssop is interesting in that it is one of the aromatic, mint-family plants that is native to North America.
Why native plants?
As I have become interested in ecology, I have started to seek out native plants from the mint family, such as Monarda, for use in herbal teas, in contrast to the non-native, introduced plants from Asia and Europe. Most of the herbal teas widely consumed in the United States, such as chamomile, mint, and numerous others, are non-native plants here. Although mint (spearmint, apple mint, peppermint, etc.) and chamomile can both be grown in the U.S., they are not native; in some cases, these plants and other herbs have actually become invasive species, escaping into wild ecosystems and causing problems. Anyone who has grown mint in a temperate climate will testify to the way it can take over an entire garden, often choking out other plants. This same effect can happen in wild ecosystems. Part of the reason for this is that there are few native insects adapted to eat non-native plants.
There is a wealth of native plants available in North America that can be used to make herbal teas, both for beverages and medicinal purposes. Growing native plants is often better for local ecosystems, as they are eaten by native insects and thus help feed birds and create habitat for all varieties of animals, and are less likely to act as reservoirs for invasive pests and diseases. And, perhaps most importantly of all, native plants do not become a problem if they escape cultivation and seed back into a wild ecosystem--quite to the contrary, growing native plants in your garden can help provide a healthy population of these plants so that the population remains strong and diverse in nature.
I am sharing this info to explain what has motivated me to sample this herb and some of the other herbs I have been exploring for use in herbal teas.
The Review of Anise Hyssop Tea:
The leaves of this plant had a very mild aroma, so I steeped a very large quantity of leaf to make a single cup. I brought water to a boil, added the leaves, and then let it sit on very low heat for about 10 minutes. This produced a cup that had a light green color, paler than most green tea, and a moderately strong aroma.
The aroma was predominately licorice, with a strong suggestion of wintergreen, and other more generic vegetal tones. Licorice and anise are similar aromas, and the name anise hyssop suggests anise, but I found that the aroma resembled licorice more than anise. The vegetal tones are probably due to the fact that I brewed this herbal tea from fresh leaves; I suspect that if the herb were dried it would be significantly less vegetal in aroma.
The flavor is extremely smooth, and unusually sweet, so sweet it even tastes sweetened, as if honey had been added. There is almost no bitterness or astrigency. This is among the sweetest, smoothest infusions I have ever sampled from a plant. An informational page on anise hyssop run by the government of Manitoba, says that this herb was used as a sweetener by Native Americans, and I can believe that!
I also tried making an iced herbal tea from the anise hyssop (without blending it with anything), and I found it very pleasing. When iced, the vegetal tones are diminished somewhat, and one is left with a mild, sweet, drink that tastes like honey and licorice with a little wintergreen thrown in.
How does it make me feel?
I have had several cups of the brew from this plant, hot and iced. It seems to have a somewhat dampening effect on my body as a whole. I notice that it tends to fairly strongly suppress my appetite, giving me a sensation of fullness even after drinking a single cup. It does not necessarily relax me, but I felt slowed down and less energetic after drinking it. My stomach felt very calm and settled, but I felt uninterested in eating much food for some time after drinking it.
I wasn't crazy about the effects of this tea, given how I was feeling for starters, but I imagine that in some cases, it might have a positive effect. I also think it would make an excellent choice of a minor ingredient in an herbal blend, for people looking to sweeten a blend, as it adds sweetness without adding bitterness or astringency. I suspect that anise hyssop has some possibly potent medicinal uses, however, I was not able to find any scientific research on it, and the information on traditional use by Native Americans that I was able to find in a quick web search was brief and conflicting, not painting a clear picture of this plant's medicinal properties. This would be an interesting topic for further research, however.
Have you ever tried anise hyssop? And do you have any other suggestions about herbs, native to North America, that I might try infusing in my quest to discover more plants for herbal tea?