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Star Anise Plant: Subtropical Starry Spices

Anise has so many beneficial properties in terms of pest control, medicine, and the star anise plant is also lovely. So if you like growing plants that have multiple uses in varying spheres, this might be the one for you. 

We are talking specifically about Illicium verum, and not other star anise plants that are toxic. Japanese star anise (Illicium anisatum) and swamp star anise (Illicium parviflorum) have the same common name but are highly toxic. So, remember that we are discussing Illicium verum, which does not have white flowers. 

A great tree to get going in your tree guild, or as an addition to a garden bed or greenhouse, the star anise plant is one that gardeners take on for the long haul. Like many other trees, Chinese star anise takes multiple years to fruit and develop those lovely seeds people use in cooking, medicine, and home care products. 

When it does produce, you can use the fruit to make a highly fragrant oil that works well in cooking, making homemade pesticides, and incorporating it into body care products. Now, let’s talk about how to grow and care for star anise! 

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Quick Care Guide

Star anise plant
The star anise plant produces eight-pointed, star-shaped pods. Source: geishaboy500
Common Name(s)Star anise, Chinese star anise, badian, eight-horned anise
Scientific NameIllicium verum
Days to HarvestAt least 2000 days
LightDapple sun/partial shade to full sun
Water~1 inch per week; less in winter
SoilRich, loamy, well-draining, slightly acidic 
FertilizerCompost, slow-release full spectrum
PestsNone
DiseasesAlternaria blight, downy mildew

All About Star Anise Tree

Japanese star anise
Avoid Japanese star anise (Illicium anisatum) as it is toxic. Source: harum.koh

Star anise (Illicium verum) is commonly known as Chinese anise, eight-horned anise, or badian. This medium-sized evergreen tree is native to Vietnam and China.  It is called star anise because the reddish-brown fruit pods (often wrongly called seeds) resemble an 8-pointed star. 

Chinese star anise is a tropical evergreen tree that has large glossy green foliage, and pink to red flowers that bloom in the sixth year, or so of growth. Flowers are about 1.5 inches in width and are made up of multiple whorled petals. After the flowers fall away, a fruit pod remains that has eight horns, each containing fruit. When it matures, it grows up to 5 meters tall. This sets it apart from other toxic anise plants. Japanese star anise (Illicium anisatum) and swamp star anise (Illicium parviflorum) both have distinct differences from the non-toxic tree we discuss here. 

Japanese star anise (Illicium anisatum) is a similar tree that doesn’t have the same pod shape as Chinese star anise, and the white flowers are arranged differently. Swamp star anise (Illicium parviflorum) has white flowers also and is much smaller than the tree we discuss here. If you purchase a star anise tree when you search (its sign or label should say Illicium verum) make sure the one you find is not a similar tree. 

A large pharmaceutical company used to source star anise fruit for a popular flu medication. In that process, they used up almost 90% of the worlds’ crops. They have since switched to a bacterial source that contains the same compound, but the star-shaped fruit is still used today for mouthwashes, toothpaste, and body care products.

Planting

You can begin growing star anise from seed. However, for those not as familiar with growing a star anise plant outdoors, it’s easier to find this tropical evergreen tree in a nursery. Once you have an established tree, you can sow seeds from your star anise harvest. 

When deciding where to plant your Illicium verum (star anise), make sure you choose a spot with dappled shade. Do not plant until after the danger of frost has passed in spring. Make sure the tree is out of direct high dry winds, and too much sunlight. Also, consider drainage, as star anise appreciates drying out between waterings. You can try to grow star anise in a container, too. This is especially important in places where winters can be bitter cold. Make sure the container is large enough and has drainage holes wide enough to dry out the soil between regular watering. 

Care

Star anise leaves
The leaves of the star anise are thick and glossy. Source: David Stang

Consider the basics before you grow star anise. Let’s cover what you need to know to begin growing star anise. 

Sun and Temperature

To grow a star anise plant outdoors, make sure it gets dappled shade in the afternoon. Full sun to partial shade in the morning is ok. In the wild, star anise lives in subtropical climates underneath the upper canopy. Plant it in a too sunny location, and find it doesn’t grow as well. Partial sun is a good rule of thumb here. 

Star anise trees grow best in the southern United States in zones 7 through 9. They need hot summers and very mild winters to survive. They need extra protection in zones 7 and 8 where the temperature falls quickly in the winter. If the temperature falls suddenly, wrap your Chinese anise tree growing in the ground with a tree wrap. If it is in a container, take the container inside or put it in a greenhouse where temperatures are stable. In high heat, you won’t have any trouble. Just make sure to water as needed. 

Water and Humidity

Water the ground surrounding your star anise in the morning when the top 2 inches have dried out. This goes for containers and in-ground plantings. Keep the soil moist but not wet in between watering. When you grow star anise, give it at least 1 inch of water per week. Drip irrigation is one way to ensure water gets directly to the roots. In winter, do not water star anise as much as the soil won’t have the ability to dry out. 

Soil

Growing star anise requires a rich, loamy soil type that is well-draining. To prepare your container or garden, add a generous amount of aged manure or well-rotted compost rich with nutrients. Make sure the soil texture is loose, and the pH is slightly acidic. Neutral soil is fine as well. Anywhere between a pH of 6.0 to 7.5 works well for growing star anise. 

Fertilizing

The only fertilizer you need is more aged manure or compost rich with nutrients applied in spring. Simply add either or a mix of both to the ground surrounding your tree in a 1 to 2-inch layer. Then lightly water it in. Do not add this in winter or fall, as it will burn the tree. 

Pruning

If you’d like to keep growing star anise as a shrub, you can prune the tips in winter. Take off no more than 6 inches per branch with sharp shears. Try not to use electrical tools which can make the branches and long leaves look hacked. Prune off weak branches as they appear. The same goes for any diseased branches. Overall, there are no special requirements for pruning star anise. The pods don’t need any special care because they are picked unripe. We’ll get to that later. Keep it nice and you’ll see why people plant these trees for their great decorative value. 

Propagation

There are two ways to propagate and grow star anise from an existing plant. The first is by cuttings. Remove a 4-inch section of branch with a sharp knife, and plant it in a soil mix of perlite and sand or peat humus. Wait for it to root, and keep it healthy until next spring when it can be planted.

The second propagation method is by star anise seed. Once you’ve harvested and processed the pods, remove the seeds. Test them by placing them in water. Those that sink are viable. Then, plant them in a potting mix at a ½ inch depth. One per pot is best. Keep the soil moist and they’ll sprout in 4 to 8 weeks. The seeds that did not sink should be discarded. 

Harvesting and Storing

Star anise
Star anise has a lovely licorice-like flavor. Source: Anne Worner

When you grow star anise, you’re probably doing it so you can make star anise tea or star anise oil. But if you’ve ever tasted star anise, you know the best part is harvesting!

Harvesting

Once pods appear in their rounded shape, remove them with garden shears individually and sun-dry them. When they are properly sun-dried and ready they will have changed from their more rounded shape to aniseed stars. This is where they get their “eight horns” reputation: from their star-shaped pod. Aniseed stars also change from green to reddish-brown. The pods pop open, and the fruit is used to flavor dishes once they are mature enough. To test this, take out a seed and pinch it. If you don’t smell that distinctive black licorice scent, they’re aren’t ready yet. Repeat the test over the following days. If your nose detects the black licorice scent, it’s the time! 

Storing

The taste components of star anise are paramount to Chinese cooking. If you’ve ever tasted star anise you know what I mean. This Chinese spice is used to flavor dishes there, in many international cuisines, and Asian cuisines as a whole. And in winter, anise is a great addition to hot wine. So how do you store the seeds once they emerge from the pod? First off, regardless of the state you choose to store them, make sure you have airtight containers. If you’ve chosen to leave the seeds in the pod, you’ll have star anise for your Asian cuisines for up to two years. Grind the seeds, and use them in dishes, or for their pest repellent properties for up to one year. Note that seeds that don’t have their distinctive aroma anymore aren’t useful. Discard these. 

Troubleshooting

Side view of star anise plant
A side view of the leaves of the star anise plant. Source: David Stang

When you grow star anise you’ll find there’s really not much to worry about in terms of difficulties. It’s a very hardy and pest-resistant plant. Here are a few things to consider.

Growing Problems

Remember to grow star anise in a not-too-sunny location. Too much sun will singe leaves and stunt growth. Remember, this tree enjoys subtropical climates in its native region. That means enough moisture to keep feeding it, but not too much. Too much water results in mildew. If you find it getting singed or mildewed, move your container or transfer the tree to a pot where you can experiment with the placement without damaging it further. 

Pests

Grow star anise and find there are no pests to deal with! Pretty awesome, huh? This is why a star anise plant is a great plant to grow. 

Diseases

Only two known diseases affect star anise (Illicium verum): Alternaria blight and downy mildew. 

Alternaria blight generally affects star anise in China, but if you purchase from a nursery you might bring a diseased tree into your garden. The way the blight presents is first through a spot with a light ring on one or more leaves which eventually make the leaves collapse. Use applications of a copper fungicide spray once per week to treat blight. 

Downy mildew affects star anise when conditions are too wet for too long. Water your tree from below to prevent this. Neem oil can be used as a preventative spray. Use copper fungicide at first identification of the problem. Remove any discolored leaves and branches which turn yellow as downy mildew progresses. 

Frequently Asked Questions

Illicium verum
A young Illicium verum as seen from above. Source: David Stang

Q: How long does it take to grow star anise?

A: It can take at least 6 years for star anise to grow from seed fruit. 

Q: How does star anise grow in Australia?

A: Very well! It loves subtropical climates which are prevalent in areas of Australia. 

Q: Can you grow star anise in a container?

A: Yes! In fact, try this at first to see which area the tree is best suited to.


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