Anise Hyssop: Agastache foeniculum
A Perennial Native
Strolling one recent afternoon with my English friend, Rachel Clearfield, through her wild and magical garden, I couldn’t help but drink in the soft summer light that filtered through the weeping willows trees. There were also peach, plum, apple and apricot, all of which Rachel had planted herself. She loved sharing the abundance of this amazing garden; introducing me to exotic vegetables, and calling the various flowers and herbs by name as we made our way down the narrow paths. This garden clearly feeds her soul and is the same garden that inspires her fine “classical visionary” oil paintings for which she is so well known.
Laying my eyes for the first time on this idyllic scene I recalled one of my favorite paintings simply titled, “Rachel’s Garden. “ It graces the cover of my CD recording entitled, “My Mother’s Garden,” which also features her cellist husband, Ron Clearfield. The vision was becoming clear as we sat on the gazebo swing with Rachel pointing out the lilies she had included in the painting. Rachel’s mother was an English gardener, as was my own and we were the daughters carrying it on. And so it was through the oils of Rachel’s paints and the eyes of her vision that I first entered this paradisiacal garden nestled in an Appalachian Mountain holler.
Have you ever had the feeling that you were waking up in a dream, or that you were walking into the flat canvas of a painting that suddenly became vividly alive with color and dimension? That was how I felt standing next to Rachel on the quaint wooden bridge above the gentle stream beneath the weeping willow. I gazed out across the garden to where her dappled grey Arabian horse stood grazing in the pasture beyond. In that moment an Anglewing flew past me and landed on Rachel’s shoulder. Lesser Anglewing Katydid, Microcentrum retinerve to be exact, but Angel Wing was the word that came to mind. She didn’t notice the creature so I pointed it out to her. Personally, I believe that it was a fairie in disguise as I have seen them take on these forms before in order to be more visible to our human eye. She lightly brushed it aside.
We continued down the garden path dropping to our knees to weed around the blooming thyme. We also took the time to stop and smell the fragrant white lilies that intoxicated us. At a particular point where the paths converged, a good distance from where we first started into the garden over the bridge, I was introduced to an herb that I had never met before. It seemed to stand out from all the rest which was notable since the competition for attention was fierce among the “Dragon’s Lingerie” string beans and colorful self-seeding poppies. I instantly knew that this plant was Rachel’s ally and told her so. She was curious and asked how I knew this, and what medicine did it have for her. That was when I noticed the Anglewing Katydid crawling up the stem of this small and seemingly insignificant plant toward its delicate, pale purple wand of a flower. It was a sign I could not deny. Rachel pinched off a piece of the plant for me to smell and taste – and I fell in love with Anise Hyssop.
Anise Hyssop, Agastache foeniculum is in the mint family, Lamiaceae, and a perennial native to North America. More resistant to drought than many other members of the mint family it likes to grow at the edge of open woodlands and is considered a cottage garden herb. Cultivated forms of Anise Hyssop are often grown in flower gardens and these cultivars frequently escape and establish populations in the wild. Plants that grow in their native habitat, however, and in soil for which they are designed carry the most potent medicine. More than plants that have been introduced or even naturalized, native plants embody the spirit of place. The aromatic fragrance, distinct flavor and delicate color of Anise Hyssop would make a believer out of anyone.
Its name derives from the Old English ysope, the Irish Latin hysopus and the Greek hyssopos. Hyssop is a word of Semitic origin that describes any of several aromatic herbs used medicinally and in purification rites and ceremonial sprinkling. It is a sacred plant used in Judaism and appears repeatedly in the Hebrew Bible. It is often used to fill the Catholic ceremonial aspergillum, a liturgical implement, which the priest dips into a bowl of holy water and sprinkles onto the congregation to bless them and to heal the sick. An aspergillum in the form of a natural brush made from tree branches and twigs is also used by Witches at the ‘Turning of the Wheel’ to cleanse the Circle prior to seasonal rituals and to aid in creating sacred space. Pure spring water, rainwater or water charged with moonlight is used instead of Christian holy water. But really, its all the same as religious rituals are adapted down through time and are a part of our human evolution. Anise Hyssop is a blessing to any gardener.
Native Americans found many uses for this plant. They included it in their medicine bundles and burned it as incense for protection. Its uplifting fragrance was also used to treat depression. Anise Hyssop made into a poultice can be used to treat burns and in wound healing. As a wash for poison ivy it helped to reduce itching. Internally it was used to treat fevers, and diarrhea. It is antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, and very useful as an infusion for relieving congestion. As a medicinal herb it has soothing, expectorant and cough suppressant properties. A tea made from the leaves and flowers is sedating and relieves pain from coughing with chest colds. Used in combination with licorice it is especially effective for lung conditions such as bronchitis and respiratory tract infections.
The foliage of Anise Hyssop actually smells like licorice with complex notes of lemon, pine, sage, black pepper and camphor. There is no floral scent. Leaves and flowers are edible and may be baked in breads or added to salads. It is a feast for the senses and well deserving of its place in the wild garden. It attracts bees and butterflies but controls pests while encouraging pollination. Deer avoid eating this plant but rabbits love it. Hummingbirds also find it attractive and goldfinches eat its seeds. Rachel had successfully managed to incorporate various aspects of the wild garden into her own promoting biodiversity and benefiting the wider environment.
The first date that I had scheduled with Rachel to connect and spend time with her in the garden had to be rescheduled because she had a bad cough and was down with a cold. I offered to bring her some of my wildcrafted horehound syrup, but she didn’t want to expose anyone and was making teas from herbs in her garden. Her cough and cold might have been reason enough for Anise Hyssop to be a potential ally. But as Rachel and I continued meandering through her garden that day, we talked about how healing it was to be surrounded by beauty. We also discovered that we were both incest survivors. This garden that so clearly fed Rachel’s soul was also healing my own.
In herbal medicine a shock or trauma is said to cause what is know as a shen disturbance, or in other words – its causes the shen to flee the physical body. Shen is a concept borrowed from Chinese medicine that equates to “spirit” in Western terms. The shen is seen as residing in the heart and following shock or trauma it must be restored to the heart in order for healing to occur. The earth-spirit medicine of Anise Hyssop does exactly this, and its flower essence is said to bring back sweetness after the weight of guilt and shame, which is always unwarranted in the case of early childhood sexual abuse. Its flower essence is also used for body-soul integration of pain and suffering. It is a post-trauma stabilizer aiding the ability to forgive and to accept forgiveness.
There is no question in my mind that we were divinely guided to this sweet little plant that warm summer day in Rachel’s garden. It is clearly an ally for Rachel, but now it has also become a personal ally of my own. So if ever you happen to notice an Angel Wing (or Anglewing!) katydid lighting amongst the flowers, best not to be in a hurry or fooled by the disguise. If I were you, I’d let her be my guide.
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Learn more about Thea’s class Heal Your Heart that teaches about shen disturbances.
Learn more about Thea’s Healing Herbal Retreats and Rachel Clearfield’s magical realism in fine classical oil paintings.
To listen to the song of the Lesser Anglewing Katydid, visit: Microcentrum retinerve
Lesser Anglewing Katydid – Microcentrum retinerve Photo by Stephen Durrenberger