Despite the multiple usages of star anise, a spice harvested from trees native to northeast Vietnam and southeast China, and notwithstanding its potential as a ‘flex crop’ due to being a key component in the pharmaceutical production of the anti-influenza drug Tamiflu, little is known about who cultivates this spice and how it reaches consumers around the world. Putting commodity chain analysis literature into conversation with recent ‘flex crop’ debates, we analyse the roles of actors along star anise commodity chains originating in rural, upland northern Vietnam. Our qualitative fieldwork reveals the intricate and idiosyncratic nature of these commodity chains upon which ethnic minority cultivator livelihoods depend, and which connect uplands and lowlands through manifold linkages. Cultivators, intermediaries, wholesalers, exporters and marketplace traders are constantly having to renegotiate their positions along these chains to maintain viable livelihoods due to uncertain financial returns and shifting demands. Adding to livelihood insecurities, financial gains have fluctuated wildly over time. The segmented knowledge individuals have of these commodity chains keep many in a vulnerable position, while the Vietnamese state's approach to promoting this commodity as a way to improve local livelihoods is questionable.