During my 38 years in Georgia, the Illicium species has catapulted from obscurity to refreshing prominence in the nursery industry. With around 40 species worldwide, only two (Illicium floridanum, Florida anise, and I. parviflorum, Ocala anise or small anise-tree) are native to the United States. Through the years, I collected I. anisatum (Japanese star anise), I. lanceolatum, I. henryi, and I. simonsii.

‘Florida Sunshine’
Photos by Michael A. Dirr

I. floridanum and I. parviflorum are the most prominent in cultivation and also the most cold hardy in Zones (6b) 7-9. Notable cultivars are attached to both, primarily derived from seedlings or as branch sports. However, Dr. Tom Ranney from North Carolina State University has bred several promising selections of I. floridanum.

But this brief essay profiles I. parviflorum. My first exposure to it in 1979 occurred at Callaway Gardens where the late Fred Galle showed me a 20-foot-high specimen in full sun. On the Georgia campus, a large colony grows on the east side of the law school, shaded by water oaks. This colony has been rejuvenated by periodic pruning and is still in fine condition. Always intrigued by the species’ landscape potential, I shared plants with many nurseries. Tommy Dudley at Dudley Nursery in Thompson, Ga., told me it is still a consistent seller.

The species is remarkably insect and disease resistant, supporting the premise as a “no-brainer” landscape plant. Bruised foliage is highly aromatic and reminds me of sassafras or magnolia.

Andrea Southworth, a former graduate student, partially unraveled the basis for its insect resistance. She isolated and identified several compounds from the leaves (linolool, safrole, methyl eugenol ether, and caryophyllene), used them in bioassays, and killed fall army worms. Susy, our youngest daughter, used Andrea’s extracts for a high school science project and made short work of fire ants.

The species occurs in five counties in central Florida in moist to wet soils along streams, ravines, swamps and bayheads. Native populations are under pressure from development and hydrological fluctuations. Once established in the landscape, it is durable, but will suffer during extended drought. I believe this is a situation where horticulture will potentially save a native plant from extinction.

BananAppeal

The species may reach 30 feet in the wild, but consistently smaller under cultivation – 8-10 feet high (sometimes 15 feet), with variable spread as it layers and is somewhat stoloniferous. It’s amenable to pruning, thus smaller sizes.

The olive-green foliage color persists through the seasons. Flowers open in May-June, sporadically thereafter, each ½-inch wide, with 6 to 12 yellow-green petals held on a crooked pedicel in the leaf axil. Fruit is star-shaped, aggregate of follicles, appearing like spokes on a wheel, opening to display BB-sized brown seeds. Follicles split at maturity and seeds may be lost. Collect the entire fruit when yellow-brown and place in a paper bag. Seeds dehisce as fruit dries. Seeds require cold-moist stratification for 30 to 60 days.

Several selections are in commerce, with the yellow-leaf ‘Florida Sunshine’ named by Tony Avent from Plant Delights Nursery being the most popular. Beautiful yellow to yellow-green foliage year-round when sited in shade. Foliage will photo bleach (close to white) in full sun and under drought conditions. It’s one of the best yellow foliage broadleaf evergreens for shade in Zone (6b) 7-9. I estimate it to top 5-8 feet high at maturity and easily maintained by pruning. Tony brought three yellow seedlings to Raleigh in 2000 from Superior Trees in Lee, Fla. The seedling named ‘Florida Sunshine’ grew 5 feet by 3 feet in seven years.

BananAppeal (‘PIIIP-I’) is a 2016 introduction from Bailey Nursery. Two yellow leaf seedlings were planted next to ‘Florida Sunshine’ at Plant Introductions, Inc. (PII). My partners and I debated whether there was any justifiable uniqueness to warrant the introduction of either seedling. Leaf orientation, stem coloration, smaller habit, and ease of container culture (not as wobbly) were sufficient to move Bailey to introduce it. I estimate 2 ½ feet to 4 feet high and wide at maturity. Leaves are borne horizontally in contrast to the 45-degree angle of ‘Florida Sunshine.’ The stems of young shoots are orange-red and contrast with the brilliant yellow leaves.

Superior Trees gave me a green-white streaked and spotted leaf seedling many years ago. I tried to stabilize the variegation with no success, but shared plants with friends. I noted an introduction from Woodlanders called ‘Florence’ that is similar to the Superior seedling. Woodlanders describes it as originating at Superior Trees.

I discovered a darker green leaf seedling in the University of Georgia botanical garden and named it ‘Forest Green.’ Most thought it was not sufficiently unique and it has quietly passed into the cultivar sunset. Mark Griffith at Griffith Propagation Nursery discovered a yellow-margined, irregular green-centered sport on BananAppeal, which is currently under evaluation.

For more than 40 years, horticulturist, breeder, and author Michael A. Dirr has impacted the green industry through research, teaching, books, and plant introductions. michirr@aol.com