Star anise, a dried flower seed pod from the star anise plant, is used in cooking but is most known for its reputation in traditional Chinese medicine. The flowers grow on small, shrub-like trees in southwest Asia. The star-shaped fruits are harvested and dried to prepare the spice
The Anise plant
Star anise comes from a small evergreen tree that is native to China. For this reason, it's often known as a "Chinese anise," though it's scientific name is Illicium verum. This tree has spade-shaped leaves with a slightly waxy texture, and its flowers may be red or white. When farmed, it grows to about the size of a large rose bush.
Star Anise fruit
The "star" used commonly as an herb is the fruit of the Illicium verum. A hollow, woody shell shaped like an eight-armed star protects large, bean-like seeds. The fruit is harvested just before it ripens to prevent the release of seeds. Before the fruit matures, it is soft and light green with slighty reddish-brown tips.
Star Anise vs. Anise
Star anise is sometimes confused with "standard" anise, or Pimpinella anisum, or the plants are thought to be closely related. In fact, anise plants are a small, wispy green plant resembling dill with tiny white flowers. The plants are not closely related (though both are native to Southwest Asia), but are compared to one another because the flavoring imparted by their seeds is remarkably similar. This is because both plants contain the organic compound anethole, a natural oil that flavors both these plants as well as fennel, licorice and basil.
Most commonly, star anise is used in recipes calling for a spicy "anise" flavoring. The spice is called for in soups, scones and slow-cooking dishes, such as stews. Star anise pods are also commonly used in pork dishes.
Both the star-shaped husk and the seed of the star anise fruit contain anethole and thus, the entire fruit is used in cooking. It may be cooked in liquid to extract its flavor, or ground and sprinkled into dishes. Star anise is a popular ingredient in much Chinese and Indian cooking, lending its distinct flavor as part of such widely-used spice combinations as garam masala and five spice powder. It is a primary ingredient in some chai teas. In addition to food, star anise flavors a wide variety of liquors, including Galliano, sambuca and some varieties of absinthe.
Star anise is commonly used as a folk remedy for the treatment of joint pain and is used as a digestive aid. It is used in the manufacturing of some drugs designed for relief of flu symptoms.
Star anise spices may reduce gas, help with digestion, and have diuretic properties that help the body clear toxins, according to Wellness, a health website. A 2009 article in "Epoch Times" claims the star anise spice was used to treat flu victims during a 2005 swine flu epidemic. As of 2011, traditional Chinese medicine practice still claimed star anise helps cure babies with colic. As of 2011, the United States Food and Drug Administration did not support those claims because no medical tests had been performed to certify them.
The FDA has warned consumers since September 2003 not to drink teas brewed with Chinese star anise. The FDA stated then that individuals who drank teas brewed with the spice suffered serious neurological effects, such as "seizures, vomiting, jitteriness or rapid eye movement." Forty individuals, including 15 infants, were affected before the FDA issued its warning. As of 2011, the FDA had not changed or updated its warning.