Unlike other native shrubs and trees that have become the darlings of nationwide advertising campaigns, Florida anise-tree (Illicium floridanum) struggles to achieve widespread interest. This shade-adapted understory shrub can be found growing naturally in shaded, moist to wet areas where it can reach a compact height and width of 6 to 10 ft. The olive-green leaves are 2- to 6-inches long (reminiscent of rhododendron foliage) and release a fragrant anise scent when crushed.
In April, Florida anise-tree bursts into bloom with 1- to 2-inch wide star-shaped, maroon-red flowers comprised of 20 to 30 straplike petals. Like colorful pinwheels, these flowers are pretty but have an unappealing fragrance. OK, full disclosure: the flowers smell like rotting fish—but not all of the flowers. Over the years, I have sniffed many Florida anise-tree flowers (no, I’m not attracted to the fetid aroma of decomposing fish) in a quest to find flowers that possess a more pleasing fragrance. The closest I’ve come is a handful of flowers that lack any scent.
In addition to these aesthetic features, Florida anise offers durability, low maintenance, and freedom from pests. If you have shady, moist nooks in your landscape, consider this broadleaved evergreen shrub that looks best when planted en masse. Besides red flowers, there are a few cultivars that have white flowers, such as ‘Alba’ and ‘Semmes.’ Thayer’ (Shady Lady®) has pink flowers and grayish-white-margined leaves, and ‘Pink Frost’ has burgundy-red flowers and creamy-white, variegated foliage that turns rose-pink in cool fall weather. This combination of beauty and functionality has made Florida anise a celebrity in my landscape.