© Helvetas / Jane Carter

Four Things You Didn’t Know About Star Anise and International Development

BY: Jane Carter - 15. February 2024
© Helvetas / Jane Carter

Star anise is familiar to Western consumers as a component of mulled wine, various pastries and as a flavoring of spirits such as Pastis and Sambuca. It is far more widely used in Asian cuisine, being one of the key spices in Chinese five-spice powder, an essential component of the Vietnamese soup phở, and of various Indian curries. It also has medicinal uses, as highlighted further below.

This is the second in a series of blogs about the smallholder farmers who produce some of the spices that flavor our food – and how international cooperation efforts can assist some of them to improve their lives and their natural environment. Read on for a few, possibly surprising, facts. 

1. A tree that entices…

Star anise is produced on medium-sized evergreen trees that are native to northeast Vietnam and southern China. Such trees can reach a height of 15 – 20 meters and potentially live up to 200 years. The botanical name, Illicium verum, means “true enticement” – although whether or not the highly aromatic species entices or repels is perhaps somewhat subjective. The scent of a basket full of freshly harvested star anise fruits is certainly difficult to ignore.

The name “star” comes from the shape of the fruit, or rather, that of the inner part of the fruit, the pericarp. When properly formed, each “star” has eight points, each containing one seed; but “stars” with six or seven points are also quite common. While having a similar taste, star anise is entirely unrelated to aniseed, which is derived from the plant anise, which is grown in Mediterranean areas.

© Jane Carter
Ban Vien village farmer Nang Thi Sim holds a freshly harvested basket of star anise.  © Jane Carter
© Jane Carter
Star anise © Jane Carter
© Jane Carter
Star anise drying © Jane Carter

2. A crop grown by thousands of smallholder farmers

Although there was always local demand for star anise, smallholder farmers in Vietnam often credit the French colonialists with encouraging its cultivation in plantations. This took place in the early half of the 20th century, particularly in the province of Lạng Son, in the northeast of the country, where distilleries for the extraction of star anise oil were set up. Even today, about 70% of the national production of star anise comes from Lạng Son, with smaller amounts from neighboring provinces.

Even more than cinnamon, star anise tends to be grown by ethnic minority peoples. One possible reason for this is that harvesting is generally conducted by climbing up the tree and shaking off the fruit – a task that carries some risk.

Plantations of star anise expanded rapidly during the late 1990s and early 2000s under the Vietnamese government’s reforestation program. This entailed the allocation of plots of degraded forest land to individual households for replanting; in the northeast of the country, star anise was one of the recommended species.

3. A component of the anti-influenza drug Tamiflu

Star anise contains Shikimic acid, a core component of the anti-influenza drug oseltamivir, marketed by Roche pharmaceuticals under the brand name Tamiflu. Scares about the various outbreaks of avian flu in the early 2000s led to a huge rise in demand for Tamiflu, and thus for star anise. At that time, Roche was reported to be buying up around 90% of the global star anise production, leading to a huge increase in price.

Recognizing the commercial danger of relying on production from a relatively slow-growing tree, Roche pharmaceuticals invested in developing a means to produce Shikimic acid through microbial fermentation. By 2005, the company had mastered this technique using E.coli bacteria and was using it to produce about a third of its needs. By 2012, it had mainstreamed microbial production and was no longer purchasing star anise. The price paid for the spice on the international market, which was already waning, fell accordingly.     

4. The role of Helvetas

The collapse of the international price for star anise inevitably had a huge impact not only on the many smallholder farmers producing it in Vietnam and China, but also the other actors along the value chain: primary processors who sort, grade and sometimes dye the fruits; traders; larger aggregators; and export companies. Still, Asian markets remain – indeed, China is a key player both in imports and exports of star anise – and there is still European demand for star anise as a flavoring.     

Where Helvetas comes in is in promoting the production of star anise in a mixed system that is both good for biodiversity and that spreads risk for the producer. This is being supported through the Regional Biotrade Project of the Swiss Secretariat for Economic Affairs (SECO) in the province of Cao Bang.

In this area of striking karst scenery – huge hilly outcrops rising above flat, often irrigated land – cinnamon and star anise are among a mix of cash crops grown on the steeply sloping hills. Widely planted, the star anise trees are interspersed with tea, cinnamon and native timber trees. Lower down in the valleys, rice, maize (especially for animal feed) and other food crops are grown. Livestock are also raised, their dung contributing to soil fertility. All this can be seen as a sustainable landscape approach. In return for agreeing to strictly organic methods, the spice farmers are assured a market at a premium price for their product through the local company DACE and its exporting partner, Cha-Do.


Additional Reading

About the Author
Senior Advisor Natural Resource Governance

How Helvetas Supports People in Vietnam

Helvetas promotes sustainable tourism in the mountainous regions of Vietnam and advocates for the protection of medicinal plants.
Vietnam_Biotrade_Woman | © Helvetas
Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar

Ethical Trade in Botanicals