Star anise is one of the ingredients in the Chinese five-spice powder. It is the dried star-shaped fruit pods of the mid-sized evergreen Illicium verum tree. The tree belongs to the Schisandraceae family. Star anise is different from anise (Pimpinella anisum) which is from the parsley family (Apiaceae). The tree is a native of Southwest China and Northeast Vietnam. It is also found in the state of Arunachal Pradesh in India, Laos, Philippines, and Jamaica. Both star anise and anise yield anethole, an essential oil. Both spices are used to flavor drinks and confectionery.

The Chinese star anise should be distinguished from the Japanese star anise which is a different species—Illicium anisatum. The Japanese species is highly toxic. Sometimes Chinese star anise tea products are adulterated with Japanese star anise and are unsafe to human health. Once in powder form, it is difficult to tell the difference by just looking at them. The toxicity of the Japanese star anise is due to the presence of sikimitoxin.

The US FDA in 2003 issued an advisory regarding the consumption of star anise tea. Tea contaminated with the Japanese anise is suspected to cause neurological symptoms. However, star anise as a spice has been given the Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) certificate by the US FDA. Some believe that these spicy teas are beneficial and may help in indigestion, but others associate it with seizures, vomiting, and agitative behavior.

In Europe and the US, the spice is used to flavor fruit compotes, jams, and liqueurs. The flavor of this spice has a resemblance to fennel and basil and is used as a substitute to anise.

Most of the star anise is produced from trees growing in Chinese provinces of Guangxi and Yunnan. In Guangxi province, it is estimated that 350,000 hectares of farmland are devoted to star anise tree farming. The annual production from this area has been put at 80,000 metric tons.

More on star anise and other Chinese herbs here.

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