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Illicium ridleyanum
by Phoon Sook Ngoh
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Illicium ridleyanum
by Phoon Sook Ngoh

Illicium ridleyanum is an aromatic plant with scattered ethereal oil cells throughout. Thus it is presumed that the Latin name Illicium, which means allurement, probably refers to the spicy smell of these essential oils.

Though endemic to Peninsular Malaysia, it is common in primary montane forests such as those found around the Cameron Highlands and Fraser’s Hill. Illicium ridleyanumis a typical primitive species, in that the sepals and petals of the flowers are indistinguishable, and known as tepals. Like a mini lotus flower, the tepals are arranged in two to three whorls before terminating with stamens. The stamens are arranged in a single whorl and terminate with a head of carpels. Flowering is continuous throughout the year with flowers and fruits produced simultaneously on the same plant. The green or flushed pink fruits are bizzare in appearance. They look like a radiating star, and are formed through an aggregation of eight or nine, rarely five follicles, each of which contains a single seed. The strongly scented fruits and seeds are eaten by seed predators, probably by squirrels. They first gnaw a small opening through the fleshy follicle, then eat up the entire seed inside, leaving an empty follicle shell.

Illicium ridleyanum looks similar to the Chinese star anise, Illicium verum Hook.f. (bunga lawang, in Malay), the latter being widely used medicinally, and as a spice. However, no uses for the Peninsular Malaysian species are recorded. The mistaking of other Illicium speciesfor I. verum has been been linked to fatal cases of food poisoning.

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