The quest for improved performance and adaptability in order to meet the ongoing challenges of today’s residential landscape provides the motivation to seek out plants that can rise to the occasion. In conjunction with my role as Chair of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society’s Gold Medal Plant Award Program committee, I have been evaluating a number of underutilized woody plants for the ability to meet certain criteria. Aside from natural beauty, other requirements include hardiness, shade tolerance and deer resistance, along with freedom from disease and insects. The objective is to promote the use of superior plants for the Mid-Atlantic States, and in particular, the Delaware Valley region of Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware.

More than 100 plants have won the award since the program’s inception in 1979, and several years ago, Illicium floridanum ‘Halley’s Comet’ received a Gold Medal. In the trade, the availability of this variety has continued to be limited, but recently, a cultivar named ‘Woodland Ruby’ has been increasingly in production. As an interspecific hybrid of I. floridanum and I. mexicanum, ‘Woodland Ruby’ exhibits the best features of its parent species. The distinctive, aromatic foliage of I. floridanum is combined with the extended flower season and more lustrous leaves of I. mexicanum. The growth habit of this broadleaf evergreen shrub is informally rounded, and ultimately taller than wide as the plant matures. It is rated hardy in zones 7 to 9, and in the warmer parts of this range, it can grow 6 feet to 8 feet in height. During its flowering season, the pinkish red blooms are sprinkled among the outer portions of the previous year’s growth, providing a showy display of single flowers with strap-like petals. The plant is in bloom during May and June, in my part of the country. The handsome whorled foliage adds year-round interest, blending well with other broad leaves while maintaining a character all its own.

As I seek to provide solutions for clients whose landscapes are besieged by hungry deer and increasing amounts of shade, there is a need for alternatives to the traditional palette of plant choices. Although I have not seen research to support this, the unusual aroma of Illicium foliage (being especially notable when handled or cut) seems to cause deer to bypass this plant. On my two acres of partially wooded suburban property, which is frequented by deer in all seasons, these plants have never been browsed. Illicium in general, and ‘Woodland Ruby’ in particular, has been reliable when it comes to deer resistance, even during the two brutal winters that we experienced most recently. And now that winter seems to last five months long in our region, this plant has experienced no cold damage other than minor dieback to tender late season stem tip growth. In terms of light exposure, deep shade has very little impact on the shape and fullness of the plant’s growth habit.

Photos courtesy of Steve Mostardi

For the modern landscape, much emphasis is placed on the need for low maintenance plant material and sustainable practices. With proper siting, Illicium certainly fits the bill. ‘Woodland Ruby’ is one of the most adaptable to grow, and although it prefers moist soils with adequate organic matter, it is tolerant of dry, understory locations. I have several clustered at the base of an ash tree that’s about 80 feet tall. Originally planted with some additional soil in which to become established, the plants show no sign of wilting even in the driest summers. When located in full sun, Illicium leaves will lose their luster, becoming lighter green and droopy from the stress of high temperatures. However, when it comes to shade tolerance, this plant is one of the best. There are virtually no insect or disease problems to be concerned with, and pruning is seldom required. How much more carefree can a plant be?

Cover Photo courtesy of JC Raulston Arboretum at NC State University