Name: Star Anise (Illicium verum)
Otherwise known as: Chinese Anise
Habitat: An evergreen tree member of the Illiciaceae family growing to about 17metres with shiny elliptical leaves, yellow flowers and glossy brown, star-shaped seedpods. Native to South East Asia, it favours lime-free soil.
What does it do: It has been used for over a thousand years in China to treat respiratory disorders such as bronchitis and whooping cough and to stimulate the digestive system. It is also used to treat infantile colic and rheumatics in the elderly.
The main constituents are a volatile oil which contains anithole, methyl chavicol, and saffrole. It is antibacterial, stimulant and diuretic.
The Chinese believe it heightens awareness. A Chinese herbal dating from the 16th century suggests Star Anise will cure lower back pain and if used in conjunction with fennel (Foeniculum vulgare), will remedy hernias of the intestines and bladder.
Star Anise is one of the principal sources of Shikimic Acid which is at the centre of the controversy relating to the production of Tamiflu – for Avian Flu – by the pharmaceutical manufacturer, Hoffman LaRoche. The plant is mainly grown in southern China and Hoffman LaRoche take 90 per cent of the fruit to produce Oseltamivir which is marketed as Tamiflu. Many western countries are stockpiling the drug but claim there is a shortfall, which the manufacturer claims is due to a shortage of Star Anise. This is a problem for any country or company wishing to produce the chemical themselves.
An interesting Cyprus connection is that Shikimic Acid is to be found in two of our native plants, Pistacia lentiscus, the mastic tree, and Opuntia ficus-indica, the prickly pear. Perhaps we should tell Hoffmans, who hold the license to manufacture, or the patent holder, Gilead Sciences’ previous chairman Donald Rumsfeld.
Star Anise is a very popular food flavouring and is an ingredient of Pernod and Anisette.
Be sure to use Chinese Star Anise – Japanese Anise, Illicium Anisatum, is very poisonous.
Alexander McCowan is author of The World’s most Dangerous Plants