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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
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

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

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

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