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The genus Litsea may contain anywhere between 200 and 400 species. It is probably not monophyletic (Li & Christophel 2000), and is badly in need of taxonomic revision. As currently defined, most species occur in Asia, Australia and the Pacific, though about five occur in Central and North America. Litsea species are evergreen or deciduous trees or shrubs. The leaves are alternate or opposite and pinninerved (rarely triplinerved). They are dioecious; the inflorescences axillary, composed of solitary or clustered umbels, each containing 1–15 small, but distinctive flowers, surrounded by a whorl of persistent, decussate bracts. The flowers are 3-merous or irregular with up to nine deciduous tepals (or none). Staminate flowers have (5–)9(–20) fertile stamens, some of which are glandular; staminodes usually absent. Pistillate flowers have a variable number of staminodes. The fruit has a cupule formed from the receptacle (Rohwer 1993a, Li et al. 2005).
As with most genera in the Lauraceae, Litsea is in a mess, and identifications are not easy. The three species described below seem to be well defined, but many are not, and it is probable that there are others in cultivation that have yet to be identified. Tom Hudson has sent an apposite quote from A Field Guide to the Forest Trees of Northern Thailand (Gardener et al. 2000): ‘Lauraceae is one of the most difficult families to identify – it is often impossible to be sure of the species even with a microscope.’ Generic delimitations are also frequently difficult to define.
In his survey of tender woody plants growing in the British Isles Johnson (2007) mentions unconfirmed records of tree-sized individuals of L. aciculata Blume and ‘L. zeylanica’ (four different authors have described plants under this name, according to IPNI). More species are cultivated in the San Francisco Bay Area, including the Mexican L. neesiana (Schauer) Hemsl. and L. parvifolia Mez at the University of California Botanical Garden at Berkeley, and in the San Francisco Botanical Garden there are specimens of L. javanica Blume from Indonesia, and L. calicaris (A. Cunn.) Benth. & Hook. f. ex Kirk, the Maneao, from North Island, New Zealand (where it grows as an evergreen tree to 15 m). The shrubby L. aestivalis (L.) Fernald (Pondspice), a rare native of the eastern United States from Louisiana to Maryland, is in cultivation on both sides of the Atlantic. It produces yellow flowers in early spring before the leaves expand. As interesting plants with attractive aromatic foliage Litsea are well worth cultivating in a warm, sheltered site, preferably with moist, fertile acidic soil. Propagation is by seed or cuttings rooted in warmth and high humidity
The genus Neolitsea is very close to Litsea, but plants are distinguished by having four rather than six perianth lobes. Neolitsea sericea (Blume) Koidz. is well established in cultivation, and admired for its sensuous silky leaves. There are 45 species of Neolitsea in China, and others may be expected to appear in cultivation. Among them is N. aurata (Hayata) Koidz., a tree of up to 15 m, with variable silver or gold indumentum. Seedlings are in cultivation at Cistus Nursery, and their development is eagerly awaited.