Linda Crampton is a teacher with an honors degree in biology. She enjoys exploring nutrition as well as the culture and history of food.
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Attractive and Flavorful Fruits
Star anise plants have attractive, unusual, and very flavorful fruits that smell and taste like licorice. The fruit is woody and is shaped like a star with eight rays or a flower with eight petals. Each “petal” is a seed pod that contains a brown seed. The seeds contain a volatile and aromatic oil that has many uses.
The intact fruit has a strong, pungent, and mildly sweet taste that somewhat resembles the taste of anise seeds but is slightly weaker. Anise is an unrelated plant despite its similar name. Star anise is an evergreen shrub or tree, whereas anise is a herbaceous plant that is related to parsley.
Star anise is sold as whole fruits, pieces of fruit, or a ground spice. The best spice flavor is obtained when the fruit is ground just before use. The stars or ground spice are tasty additions to both sweet and savory foods.
Each "petal" of a star anise fruit contains a seed.
THOR, via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 2.0 License
Star anise belongs to the plant family known as the Schisandraceae, which contains only three genera. Anise (or aniseed) belongs to the larger Apiaceae family, which contains parsley, celery, carrots, and other plants.
An Important Precaution
There’s one very important precaution that must be taken when purchasing or using star anise, especially when it's sold as a tea. The fruits must come from the plant with the scientific name Illicium verum, which is often known as Chinese star anise. This plant grows mainly in parts of China and Vietnam and produces fruits that are safe to eat.
Japanese star anise (scientific name Illicium anisatum) is a related plant, but its fruits are toxic and dangerous when they enter the body. Both plants are often simply called “star anise,” so consumers should check carefully to ensure that only pure Chinese star anise is present in their spice. Reputable companies make sure that their product contains only the Chinese species, but it's still important to be careful.
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There have been some reports of harmful effects resulting from the ingestion of Chinese star anise, but researchers believe that this is because the spice was mixed with the cheaper Japanese version.