Purple Anise Tree

"Purple Anise Tree" from Sir Joseph Paxton's 1838 magazine, Paxton's Magazine of Botany.

Entry on Anise from John Gerard's Herball, or, Historie of plantes

"Anise" fron John Gerard's Herball, or, Gernerall historie of plantes (1597).

Anise (Pipinella anisum) originated in the eastern Mediterranean basin and by the 15th century, the spice was cultivated as far north as England.  From the beginning, anise was as important in medicine as it was as a spice in food.  Ancient Egyptians placed it in pharaohs’ tombs because of its medicinal benefits, such as treating digestive problems and toothaches.  In the first century CE, Pliny the Elder wrote highly of the spice’s medicinal properties: in The Natural History, he asserts that the anise of Crete and Egypt “alleviates headache,” “arrests cancer of the nose,” cures tonsillitis, and “purges off phlegm from the chest.”[1]  During the Middle Ages, anise spread throughout the continent and was used as a seasoning in cakes[2] and other recipes.    Medieval Europeans used sugar-coated anise as “one of the comfits eaten at the end of a meal in order to sweeten the breath and aid digestion, a bodily function likened to the cooking process.”[3]  Food historian Ken Albala discusses the role of anise as an aphrodisiac during the Early Modern period in his book Eating Right in the Renaissance.[4]

Colonists brought the seed to the New World, where it entered native recipes, such as mole poblano.  In 1597, English botanist John Gerard published The Herball or General History of Plants, which draws heavily from Rembert Dodoens’s Pemptades.  The continued effort to improve upon herbals and descriptions of plants suggests the popularization of gardening and the cultivation of exotic plants, including anise.  Because many people began growing the plant outside of “Candie, Syria, Egypt, and other countries of the east,”[5] where it is native, botanists were required to detail the exact climate necessary for it to thrive.  In his work, Gerard lists anise’s names in Latin, Greek, Dutch, Italian, Spanish, and French, emphasizing just how widely the spice’s influence reached.  He speaks to its medicinal qualities, noting that the seed “is good against belchings,”fights against “gripings of the belly,” and helps produce “white flux” [breast milk] in women,”[6]  which recalls the seed’s uses during the Middle Ages.  Like the medieval Europeans, Gerard asserts that chewing anise “maketh the breath sweet” and “quencheth thirst.”[7]  He also points out, just as Pliny the Elder stated, that anise can “clenseth the brest from flgmatike superfluities, and […] doth helpe the old cough.”[8]

                From 1831-1849, botanist Sir Joseph Paxton published Paxton’s Magazine of Botany in 16 editions; in his 1838 edition, he discussed and illustrated star anise (Illicium verum) – eventhough it is biologically unrelated to Pipinella anisum, it is also used in mole poblano recipes.  Star anise is native to northeast Vietnam and southwest China.  It was introduced to Europe in the 17th century, when it became common in early-modern baked goods, jams, fruit compotes, and anise-flavored liquors.[9]  Similar to the Mediterranean anise, star anise has medicinal qualities that were greatly valued: it was used to relieve colic, gas, headache, gastric distress, coughs, etc.[10]  Star anise also freshens breath, encourages milk production in new mothers, and strengthens the libido.[11]  In China, it was used when cooking meat because of its strong flavor and insecticidal properties.[12]  As Europeans travelled to the New World, they must have been aware of these important properties and the benefits of bringing this spice to the Americas.  Paxton’s depiction of the spice differs greatly from previous botanical illustrations – most of which were remarkably similar to the woodcut prints of Jacobus Theodorus Tabernaemontanus, which were used in John Gerard’s Herball – in that Paxton’s illustration focuses in great detail on a small portion of the plant, and even seed, instead of the whole plant.  It is also important to note that because of improved printing technologies, Paxton is able to publish colored paintings; during Gerard’s time, however, the only cost-effective method of mass-producing images was through block printing.  The fact that the image was published in a magazine, not a book, is significant because then this information was widely circulated and read by many people.  The attention to detail, shading, and use of rich colors allows Paxton to communicate the attractiveness of star anise, suggesting that as the Early Modern period progressed, the spice was highly present and valued in life.  The deep purple color provides more information than just the color of the spice; purple has traditionally been associated with wealth, royalty, and luxury – and by depicting star anise in the manner that he does, Paxton connects it with the prosperity of the Spanish Empire, which is responsible for the spice’s transport to the New World, and by extension, its place in a Mexican dish, like mole poblano.  Even though the spice is significantly cheaper to grow than Mediterranean anise -- which could be another reason why it is used in its stead in mole poblano -- star anise's distinctive taste is also a sign of wealth, and the incorporation of it into local recipes in the New World demonstrate that people in the New World sought to demonstrate their wealth by using an Old World spice in their food.  This practice is similar to the tendency of the wealthy in Europe displaying products from the New World in order to express their prosperity. 

The stress Gerard and other botanists, such as Dodoens, place on anise’s medicinal qualities implies that its presence in Mexican mole poblano was not purely for flavor, but also for the very humoral health that people in the Old World valued.   By incorporating the seeds into foods that were regularly eaten, people were able to receive both anise and star anise’s health benefits before having to suffer from the physical ailments it cures.  Paxton’s depiction of star anise also reflects the improvement of printing technologies over the early modern period: his use of color in a magazine allows him to convey the wealth and prestige associated with this plant.  Colonists and conquistadores would not have exerted the time, effort, nor money to transport a spice from Europe to the New World unless it would prove useful.  Because of European reliance on anise and star anise, the plant thrived and spread throughout South America and the New World. 

-- By Monica Sobrin



[1] Pliny the Elder.  “Book XX.  Anise – sixty-one remedies.”  The Natural History.  Translators: John Bostock, Henry Riley.  London: Henry Bohn.  1856.  Pp.271-274.  Print.

[2] Matterer, James L.  Seed Cake.  A Book of Gode Cookery, 2000.  Web.  9 Nov. 2014.

[3] Adamson, Melitta Weiss.  Food in the Medieval Times.  Westport: Greenwood Publishing Group, Inc, 2004.  Print.

[4] Albala, Ken.  Eating Right in the Renaissance.  Los Angeles: University of California Press, Ltd., 2002.  Print.

[5] Gerard, John.  The Herball, or, Generall historie of plantes.  London: John Norton, 1597.  Pg. 880.  Print. 

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Star Anise.  Gaia Herbs: Plant Intelligence.  1 Dec. 2014.  Web.

[10] Paula Morstead.  Star Anise (Illicium verum, or Chinese Anise).  DigHerbs: 2013.  1 Dec. 2014.  Web.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.