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Illicium Belongs in Southern Gardens

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Illicium 'Woodland Ruby' Richard T. Olsen ©

Illicium ‘Woodland Ruby’
Richard T. Olsen ©

A rapid growing, low maintenance shrub with spectacular foliage is a combination that’s hard to beat. Gardeners will find these winning characteristics in Illicium floridanum, a plant to be considered for any Southern garden.

The plant has a multi-stemmed, upright, compact habit. The foliage of Florida anise or anise-tree is quite attractive and aromatic, smelling similar to anise spice when crushed. The shiny, leathery leaves are olive green in color and the 1 1/2-inch flowers are dark red with many petals appearing in the early spring.

Illicium species usually reach a height between 10 to 15 feet and should be spaced in the landscape at least five feet apart. Florida anise’s natural habitats are the wet, swampy areas or wooded streams with acidic rich soil from Florida to Louisiana, but it will thrive here in the Carolinas. Illicium grows in partial shade to full shade, but reportedly can be acclimated to full sun if well watered. It prefers moist soil and definitely should be mulched and watered during prolonged dry spells, as it has a tendency to wilt. The recommended USDA zones range from 7 to 10. Several cultivars are available including ‘Alba’ with white flowers and ‘Shady Lady,’ which is variegated. Illicium ‘Woodland Ruby’ is an interspecific hybrid between I. floridanum ‘Alba’ and I. mexicanum, and produces showy blooms in spring and fall.

Illicium simonsii Tom Ranney ©

Illicium simonsii
Tom Ranney ©

Also consider the rare, yellow-flowered species, Illicium simonsii. There is another member of the genus that is native to the southeastern part of the country called yellow anise or Illicium parvifolium, which is a popular landscaping shrub, especially for use as hedges, and it is more tolerant of sun and dry soil than other species.

All parts of Yellow Anise and Florida Anise are toxic. The anise that is used as a spice is derived from a different species, Star Anise, Illicium verum, an evergreen tree native to southern China and Vietnam.

Look for Illicium in the JC Raulston Arboretum, which has 19 different accessions in its collection, including seven cultivars of Illicium floridanum.

Diane Ashburn