Star Anise health benefits: for digestive problems and cold-related conditions

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Originally published on Herbal Medicine from Your Garden

Chinese star anise is an ingredient of Five Spice powder

Chinese star anise is an ingredient of Five Spice powder

Star anise, Illicium verum, should properly be called Chinese star anise. It’s important to distinguish it from Japanese star anise, Illicium anisatum, which is highly toxic. However, it is so difficult to achieve this that it is best not to rely on a seed merchant or nursery (who may be selling it is an ornamental, where toxicity is fairly irrelevant), but instead to source supplies from a Chinese herbalist (where it may be known as ba jiao hui xiang), who presumably can be relied on to know the difference.

Star anise is not related to the common anise, Anisum vulgare.

Star anise is so called because the fruit is star shaped. (The seeds are held individually in the “points”, so if you would really like to grow your own star anise, you can use seeds obtained as already suggested.) Chinese star anise fruits are larger and paler in color than the Japanese, and have a more marked aniseed fragrance; it is said that the Japanese star anise smells less like aniseed and more like a cardamom.

If you do wish to grow it, sow seeds in spring under cover and pot on, growing on in the greenhouse until at least the following year. Plant out into the most sheltered spot you can find, as it cannot take temperatures lower than about -5ºC (23ºF). Alternatively you could try growing it in a container, which can be moved under cover when the weather is too cold. It is a small tree, but many trees grow happily in containers.

Star anise is often used in Chinese, Vietnamese and Malay cooking, and is an ingredient of Five Spice powder. Unripe fruit is also chewed after meals, to sweeten the breath. However, if you do this, take some care, as large quantities can lead to trembling and convulsions. So long as dosage is kept to normal levels, it can be safely given to children, and is often included in cough remedies targeted to them, because of its pleasant taste.

The part used in herbal medicine is the dried ripe fruit, usually powdered. An essential oil is also extracted from the ripe fruit for use in aromatherapy, while the seed is used for homeopathy. This is easily obtained from Chinese herbalists or Chinese/Malay/Vietnamese grocers. Do not buy from a Japanese store, as they sell the poisonous Japanese star anise to be burnt as incense.

Make a standard infusion using 1 tsp crushed star anise to 250ml (1 US cup, 8 fl oz) boiling water, leaving to stand for at least 10 minutes before straining off the herb and discarding. The dosage is 250-500ml (1-2 US cups, 8-16 fl oz) per day.

Star anise is antibacterial and is used to promote appetite, to treat abdominal pain, digestive disturbances including colic, complaints caused by cold weather such as lumbago, and to relieve flatulence (“gas” or “wind“).

As with all plants grown for use in herbal medicine, avoid chemicals in cultivation, including weed killers, to ensure that the active constituents are not corrupted or masked by the presencfe of foreign chemicals. To find out more about growing organic herbs visit the Gardenzone.


Star anise essential oil is mainly used for aches and pains, respiratory and digestive complaints. Use in moderation only; overuse may have cerebral effects. Do not drive or operate machinery when using this essential oil. It is not suitable for use during pregnancy or by cancer patients.

As with all essential oils, star anise essential oil should never be taken internally, even though you may see this recommended elsewhere. Essential oils are highly concentrated and can cause permanent damage if used in this way, even if you think you have diluted them. Be safe and use them as intended, in massage blends and diffusers, and keep them out of the reach of children at all times.

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