Plant Collector: Illicum simonsii

The small, waxy flowers of Illicum simonsii

I would be telling porkies if I said that these lovely soft lemon flowers are spectacular. Understated might be a better descriptor, maybe subtle. They only measure about 2cm across but they are really interesting, looking like miniature waterlilies cast out of wax. If you think they remind you of something else, you may be thinking of star anise which is the seed head of Illicum verum. Don’t be tempted to try the seeds of other illiciums – most are poisonous. Until I looked it up, I had assumed that Illicium anisatum should be the source of star anise –far from it and anisatum too is very toxic. Simonsii is still a relatively rare shrub in cultivation, originating from the Yunnan and Sichuan areas of China. It is evergreen with a lovely glaucous blue tone to its sturdy leaves and grows much more upright than most other illiciums as well as being more tolerant of full sun and relatively dry condtions. If you break a leaf, you will discover immediately how aromatic the foliage is. Whether you like the aroma or not depends a bit on your attitude to wintergreen or Vick’s Vapourub. It smells a little too close to the bizarre raspberry Sarsi drink we once bought in Kuala Lumpur – in itself an unforgettable experience.

Illiciums are a genus all of their own though they have a distant botanical alliance to magnolias but you could never tell that from looking at them.