Native to southeast China, star anise tree is a medium-sized evergreen, growing up to 40 feet (12 meters) in height. The fruits are star-shaped, with between five and thirteen seed pockets radiating from the center. The tree, a member of the Illiciaceae family, also grows in India and Japan. The main source of the fruits and oil is China although some star anise is exported from India as well.
Star anise has a long history of use in traditional Chinese medicine, where it has been used as a digestive aid, an antispasmodic and for the treatment of coughs for thousands of years.
The essential oil of star anise is produced from the fruits by steam distillation. The oil is clear or tinged with yellow and smells very sweet, rather like liquorice. It is effective at masking other less pleasant tastes and smells and is used extensively by the pharmaceutical industry as a flavoring ingredient, especially to render certain medications more palatable. It is also used as a fragrance ingredient in various toiletries and as a flavoring in the manufacture of a number of foods and beverages.
Therapeutically, star anise is a sedative oil and is valued for its soothing, relaxing properties. It is a useful oil to use in massage or vaporizers to achieve a comforting sense of calm.
Star anise is particularly beneficial to the digestive system, for the relief of distressing symptoms such as hiccups, flatulence, stomach cramping, colic and indigestion. It can be used in massage blends for this purpose and massaged gently over the stomach and abdomen.
In steam inhalation, star anise oil is an effective expectorant so helps clear excess mucus from the airways, and also does much to soothe coughs and colds.
In general massage or in compresses the oil will relieve muscle cramping and can also be used to treat joint and muscle stiffness and aches and pains.
Star anise has very similar properties to the oil that is distilled from the herb aniseed, but as aniseed is a dermal irritant and not recommended for home use, star anise is a safer alternative, provided that it is well diluted. It is not recommended, however, for bathing.
Use star anise well diluted (2 per cent dilution or less) and in moderation as it can have a narcotic effect. Star anise oil an cause irritation in some individuals with damaged or very sensitive skin. Otherwise, it is nonirritant if used in appropriate dilution and is safer to use than aniseed, from which a similar essential oil is extracted.