Tulsi Basil and Anise Hyssop: Easy, Useful, and Adaptable

My brother mailed me some anise hyssop seeds 20+ years ago and a UM student gave me two tulsi basil plants several years ago at “Maryland Day” on the College Park campus. I am deeply indebted to them both for introducing me to these mint family members that quickly became mainstays in my garden. I love both plants for being easy to grow, healthful, and attractive to many species of beneficial insects. They grow abundantly in my yard with little human assistance. They seem pretty dependable under the extreme weather conditions of climate change, although varieties within each species will certainly differ. They tolerate hot, dry weather, as well as periods of high rainfall, as long as soils don’t stay wet. Big bonus: deer don’t seem very interested in these plants!

Every part of anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum) smells and tastes of anise. It is native to the U.S. upper Midwest and Great Plains and is also commonly known as blue giant hyssop and lavender giant hyssop. It grows well across Maryland as an annual or tender perennial (overwinters most years at my Howard Co. home). Although it self-sows readily it has not been terribly aggressive; I haven’t seen it spread beyond its main planting sites.

Robust anise hyssop plants in mid-summer holding their own in a weedy bed. Photo credit: Jon Traunfeld

Robust anise hyssop plants in mid-summer holding their own in a weedy bed. Photo credit: Jon Traunfeld

Bumble bee on anise hyssop flower. Spikes produce many flowers that are frequently visited by insects. Photo credit: Jon Traunfeld

Bumble bee on anise hyssop flower. Spikes produce many flowers that are frequently visited by insects. Photo credit: Jon Traunfeld

Tulsi basil (Ocimum sanctum or Ocimum tenuiflorum) is also known as holy basil. It is revered in India as a sacred, medicinal plant. Tulsi grows rapidly and blooms continually from June through first frost. Individual plants can easily cover 10 sq. ft. but can be pruned to fit smaller spaces. It’s one of the very few types of basil not infected by basil downy mildew, the scourge of basil lovers. It is not a culinary substitute for Italian basil but is widely used in South Asian cuisines.

Tulsi basil leaves can be harvested, used fresh and dried, through the entire growing season. Photo credit: Jon Traunfeld

Tulsi basil leaves can be harvested, used fresh and dried, through the entire growing season. Photo credit: Jon Traunfeld

With both plants, I have mainly made herbal tea with dried leaves but need to branch out to cocktails, cut flowers, etc. It’s easy to save seeds of anise hyssop and tulsi basil by cutting mature seed heads in early fall. I allow them to dry further in large paper bags. Seeds for both can be started indoors 5-8 weeks before the last frost in spring or sown directly in garden beds or containers. Both plants produce small dark seeds that can be difficult to separate from dry seed heads. So it’s ok to plant the small plant fragments, dust, and hard seeds pinched from the bottom of the bag.

Attractive foliage and flowers of tulsi basil. Photo credit: Jon Traunfeld

Attractive foliage and flowers of tulsi basil. Photo credit: Jon Traunfeld

If you are growing these plants, what’s been your experience? Any tips on using them in the kitchen? Are they becoming overly aggressive or invasive in your landscape?

Further reading:

Anise hyssop article from University of Wisconsin

Tulsi basil and research on health benefits

Sequencing the tulsi basil genome

By Jon Traunfeld, Extension Specialist

6 Comments on “Tulsi Basil and Anise Hyssop: Easy, Useful, and Adaptable

  1. I have grown tulsi in my garden for the past five years. It has been a very dependable performer even when other basils go down with downy mildew. Growing side by side, the Italian basils show signs of wilt before the tulsi does in drought conditions. It has readily reseeded in my garden, but it hasn’t been so aggressive as to become a weed. I try to keep pinching the flowerheads off to promote continuous blooms – they are usually abuzz with pollinators – and sometimes will use scissors or hedge shears on larger patches in my garden. You’re right in saying that it is not a direct culinary substitute for Italian or Thai type basils. Most of my harvest I use fresh in tea.

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  2. Anise hyssop is one of my most favorite plants in my garden! While the hybrid hyssops haven’t over-wintered for me the anise hyssop has thrived in my yard here in Dundalk. I’ve intentionally spread them around my yard over the past 5-6 years and they’ve thrived in nearly every location. And I see what you see – the flowers are constantly covered in small native bees as well as butterflies. I second your recommendation of it!

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  3. I love both these plants, but my experience with tulsi basil is that it can be an aggressive spreader. Best to cut off the seed heads if you want to keep it under control. Anise hyssop spreads too, but not as readily. Both are so great for supporting bees and butterflies.

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  4. I also can attest to the aggressive re-seeding nature of tulsi basil. It has a flavor that is different from the typical Italian or Genovese basil. My husband and I like it with fruit, especially baked or grilled summer peaches.

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  5. Despite the preponderance of very aromatic herbs in chaparral ecosystems, there is no native substitute for that here. The seed is available, and often comes with a warning that it may be aggressive, but I have never seen it doing well here. Of course, I have seen it only a few times, and have not grown it in my own garden.

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  6. Pingback: Pollinators and Food Gardens | Maryland Grows

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