July 2018 Plant Profile: Illicium henryi

Henry’s star anise, Illicium henryi, is one of my favorite unsung heroes of the Washington Park Arboretum. Through most of the year these large evergreen shrubs or small bushy trees blend into the forest matrix with deep green, quietly unpretentious leaves. But in late spring the flowers emerge from fleshy buds in sometimes sparse amounts, but to wonderful effect. The genus name Illicium comes from the Latin for “allurement” or “inducement from an enticing scent”. This refers to the aromatic scent released by bruised or crushed leaves.

The leaves of Illicium henryi are alternate, evergreen, lanceolate to oblanceolate, 4 to 6 inches long, 1 to 2 inches wide and a deep lustrous green. Trees can reach 15 feet and be equal in width. Illicium henryi does not develop a strong central leader. Rather, it will have several upright stems of similar height producing many low sweeping branches. The overall foliar effect is that of a large Camellia sasanqua with narrow leaves. In full sun its form will be more compact and dense.

The flowers of Illicium henryi do not seem to belong to the same plant as they are quite unusual to find in the cool deep green of the Pacific Northwest, especially on something so otherwise unassuming. The flowers only grow to 2 cm wide, but range in color from a coppery pink to deep carmine red. The flowers are made of 10 to 14 waxy tepals and are held on long peduncles to 5 cm.

The fruit of the star anise might be the only commonly recognized part of the plant. It consists of a star-shaped cluster of follicles, each follicle producing one seed. These seeds are released by the plant as the fruit dries.

For clarification, there are about 40 species of Illicium. Culinary star anise is the species, Illicium verum, or Chinese star anise which adds a flavor of licorice to drinks and dishes, while other species of star anise such as Illicium anisatum are toxic if ingested. None of these should be confused with aniseseed, which comes from Pimpinella anisum of the carrot family, Apiaceae. Whether edible or not, harvesting fruit from plants in the Washington Park Arboretum is illegal.

While Illicium henryi is native to central and western China, there are two species of star anise native to the southeast United States, mainly in Florida. Illicium parviflorum, commonly known as the small star anise, the yellow star anise or the swamp star anise, is similar in form to Illicium henryi, only with smaller, yellow-green flowers. Illicium floridanum, known as the Florida or purple anise tree, is a slightly smaller shrub with 2 inch deep red flowers that are considered malodorous. Both are listed as threatened species.

Common name: Henry’s star anise

Family: Schisandraceae

Origin: Central and western China

Location: Washington Park Arboretum: One specimen is along the Ridge trail in the Asiatic maple collection just off the west side of the trail. A second specimen is on the Sino-Himalayan hillside along the footpath (uphill side, just at the 90 degree turn in the path) leading down to Azalea Way

Height and Spread: Growing in the shade of our conifer overstory, our largest specimen is approximately 16 feet tall and 14 feet wide, growing as a loose and airy large shrub. Growing in full sun, Illicium henryi would be more compact and dense.

Hardiness: USDA zone 7