The scent of star anise is often described as similar to that of aniseed*, licorice and fennel. All of these ingredients have a high percentage of anethole present in their essential oil, which is responsible for its distinctly ‘anisic’ fragrance. Anethole is such a specific note that most struggle to define it as anything other than sweet and slightly medicinal. As a perfume ingredient I find star anise useful for lifting up woody blends and for cutting through the heaviness of some white florals with its bright bitter sweetness.
The wonderful thing about botanical perfumery is that many of our ingredients are also part of pharmacopeia.
I was after an antiviral essential oil to include in our hand sanitisers that was neither citrus nor herbal. Antiviral essential oils seem to have a direct effect on the mechanism of a virus, either by interfering with the virus envelope or by affecting the virus’s ability to enter the host cell. Strangely, star anise seems to have slipped below the radar of most lists of antiviral essential oil lists despite its credentials. An important constituent of star anise is shikimic acid. This powerful antiviral compound is synthesised by the pharmaceutical industry as a key ingredient in a well-known drug that treats influenza. Star anise also contains linalool and limonene, which are antiviral compounds in their own right.
Besides its antiviral properties, star anise also contains antifungal benefits. The compound anethole which gives star anise its distinct odour and flavour can suppress fungal growth**. In addition to this, star anise comprises the ability to prevent bacterial growth. Star anise extract has been shown to be as successful in treating numerous drug-resistant pathogenic bacteria as antibiotics.
Star anise essential oil is extracted from the fruit seeds of the small evergreen Illicium verum tree, which is native to South-Eastern Asia***. The name “star anise” comes from the star-shaped appearance of the fruit pods and the similarity in odour and flavour to anise. The star anise that we use is steam distilled in Madagascar, where the tree finds itself quite at home.
*Although bearing the same name and a great similarity in scent, star anise and aniseed are not related.
**Trans-anethole (naturally occurring anethole found in Chinese star anise) is harmless whereas the synthetic anethole counterpart contains cis-anethole which can be harmful and toxic to humans.
***Chinese star anise (Illicium verum) should not be confused with Japanese star anise (Illicium anisatum) which is highly toxic, in contrast to the former. Both are almost identical in appearance, so care should be taken to ensure that one obtains the pure Chinese variety.
Arctander, S. 1960. Perfume and Flavour Ingredients of Natural Origin.