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Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2008


Shikimi (Japanese anise)

I was kneeling down to pray, with the sash of my skirt hanging loosely over my shoulders, when a priest came up to me and said, "I have brought you this." He was carrying a bough of anise, and I was delighted by the gesture.

From the 10th-century "Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon," translated by Ivan Morris (Penguin)

There is something mysterious about the Japanese anise tree. Perhaps it is the way its pale-green flowers cluster among the stems, half-hidden among the leaves. Or perhaps it's the way it slowly grows in the shade of larger trees. Or then again, perhaps it is the scent, with its intriguing hints of magnolia and licorice. The origins of Illicium anisatum (also known as I. religiosum ) are a little mysterious too. Although it grows in shady forests from Honshu to Okinawa, it is said that Chinese monks brought this evergreen to Japan and planted it near the earliest Buddhist temples. Clearly, though, people have long considered shikimi to be a sacred plant. Sprigs make a traditional offering to Buddha, along with incense and candles. Its aromatic bark also makes excellent incense, which was considered powerful enough to ward off evil. Since the incense burns at an even, steady rate, watchmen also used it to mark the passing of the hours. Yet for all its beauty, the eight-starred seeds of this tree are very poisonous if eaten. Shikimi belongs to a small family of plants, the Illiciaceae, which includes the wonderfully fragrant star anise (I. verum) from southern China, the seeds of which are not poisonous and provide an essential spice in Asian cuisine.

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