By William A. McNamara
Sometimes you come across a plant in the wild that you suspect has promise as an ornamental, yet is unknown in cultivation. This was what I experienced when I first saw Illicium simonsii. Apparently Roy Lancaster had the same feeling when he first saw this species, though he had the added advantage of seeing it in flower. In his Travels in China, A Plantsman's Paradise, he writes, "Illicium simonsii was quite new to me, an evergreen shrub of 2m (6ft) or more with clusters of pale yellow flowers in the upper leaf axils. This species would be well worth introducing into cultivation where it would, I am sure, prove popular…" The plant was new to me also, though our Chinese guide Dr. Yin, was able to tell us that it was an Illicium. Later, after viewing our herbarium specimen at the Institute of Biology in Chengdu, their botanist added the specific epithet yunnanense. A couple of years after that, we were notified by Kew Gardens that the correct name should be Illicium simonsii Maxim.
I first saw this plant in 1990 during a plant hunting expedition to southern Sichuan and northern Yunnan with Lord Howick of the Howick Arboretum, in Northumberland, England. We were searching for woody and herbaceous plants in the Luoji Shan (mountains) about 30 km southeast of Xichang. Dr. Yin Kaipu and Prof. Zhong Shengxian of the Institute of Biology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Chengdu had accompanied us. From Xichang, we had driven for about two hours as far as the dirt road would take us winding our way up to the small village Bai Baiding. The village was cloud-hidden under dense mountain mist at about 9,000 feet elevation. The villagers were Yi people, one of the many minorities of the mountainous regions of China. Their women still dressed in very colorful hand made clothes with unusual flat-topped hats. The men wore heavy fringed shawls that doubled as a blanket when necessary. Under this though, they wore rather drab western clothes. We hired six men as porters and a dozen of their ponies for our gear and us. We watched in a light rain as they over-loaded the poor ponies with our backpacks and enough food for a week of camping. Smiling, we also noticed a fenced-in field of Cannabis sativa beside one of their mud-walled homes. The small but sturdy ponies had very ornate saddles with a large horn. As we climbed on the ponies and started off, I had to laugh as Lord Howick's long legs dragged on the ground.
We then began a very steep climb through dense vegetation with the visibility very poor due to the mist and the rain. It was here that the Illiciums grew, though we did not see them until we returned to the village in clear weather several days later. We did manage to collect an Aconitum, Viburnum betulifolium, Quercus pannosa, Sorbus prattii, a Gentiana, and a Berberis. The trail got steeper as we climbed above the clouds nearing the tree line. The views were spectacular now and Qionghai Lake near Xichang sparkled in the distance. Alpine meadows full of gentians surrounded us. As we neared the summit just below 14,000 feet, fast moving clouds rolled in and icy rain began to fall. In a scree below the crest grew Bergenia purpurascens, but we were too cold to stop, deciding to collect it later under better weather. Once over the top, we quickly descended to a valley with a fast moving stream at about 12,000 feet. There we set up camp and spent the next several days searching the mountains for botanical treasures.
On our return to Bai Baiding, loaded with dozens of seed packets of rhododendrons, maples, roses, buddlejas, oaks, birches, and gentians to name just a few, the weather was warm and clear. To our surprise, the area just above the village was extremely diverse with several oaks, lithocarpus, clematis, hydrangeas, clethras, rhododendrons, maples, and much more. To the frustration of our hosts, we began collecting again. Here, growing with such gems as Osmanthus delavayi and Magnolia wilsonii were hundreds of Illicium simonsii. They were in full sun and were anywhere from 6 to 10 feet high. It was impossible not to admire their dark evergreen leaves and dense pyramidal growth. Their curious circular seed capsules with pointed segments looked like green stars. The segments opened to reveal bright red seeds. We made a substantial collection of these seeds and hurried to catch up with Dr. Yin and Prof. Zhong. Tired of camping, they were in a hurry to get back to the comfortable beds and good food of Xichang.
Now, many years later, admiring the Illicium simonsii in our garden, my suspicion appears to be true. They bloom heavily every year with creamy yellow to white flowers up to 1-½ inches beginning late February continuing through March. Though some find their strong fragrance overbearing, I find it quite pleasant and not unlike a magnolia. They have maintained the same pyramidal habit that they had in the wild, with some 8 feet high after seven years in the ground. Most of ours are in full sun, however, I think they would prefer some protection in the afternoon as some have shown a little sunburn damage. None have suffered from insects or disease despite our harsh setting and poor soil. Our frequent frosts, with temperatures dropping to 18 Fahrenheit have not been a problem either.
Illicium is the only genus in the family Illiciaceae. The 40+ species are found in southern Asia, southeastern USA and northeastern Mexico. The commercially important Illicium verum from southeastern China is the source of star anise used for flavoring. The Illicium simonsii that Lancaster saw were in the Cang Shan near Dali in Yunnan. This species appears to have a fairly large distribution including southern Sichuan, northern Yunnan, Myanmar (Burma), and northeast India. Why, I thought, hadn't it been introduced earlier? As I browse through nursery catalogues, I occasionally spot Illicium henryi, Illicium anisatum, Illicium mexicanum, and Illicium floridanum. Though happy to see these Illicium offered, in my experience, none of them measure up to Illicium simonsii. With its showy creamy yellow or white flowers, this dense pyramidal evergreen shrub would make a great addition to many a garden, especially those interested in the "new" and unusual marvels of the plant world.
Photographs by Peter Clements