Whiff of seduction
When the physician and botanist Alexander Garden died in London in 1791, there were gardenias at his funeral. It was a fragrant end to a long feud.
Garden, 61, had recently returned from Charleston, S.C., where for 30 years he was an advocate of American flora and fauna. He had repeatedly suggested that Carolus Linnaeus, the Swedish prince of botany, didn’t know his trees. When Garden went back to Britain to die, he was introduced to a waxy-leafed plant with intensely scented flowers. In honor of his contribution to botany, it had been named after him. It did not come from his beloved Carolinas but from China.
Behold the gardenia, Mr. Garden.
This exquisitely insulting honor captures the mix of glory and rot that Westerners bring to the gardenia. The plant itself is a blameless foil, like the Maltese falcon, except fragrant.
That fragrance. That mix of vanilla, jasmine, nutmeg, that mix of sweetness and spice that only gets spicier as the blooms age. That smell that floods our senses so thoroughly that, once you smell it, you’ll always know it.
It’s as if the plant somehow knows its power over us. There is something mischievous about the way gardenias release their scent. They probably do it to attract pollinators with bad vision but keen noses, mainly evening moths and lucky bats.
But unlike jasmine, gardenias do not turn on the scent exclusively at night. They emit when they feel like it and are only randomly in the mood, day or night, letting off sudden seductive puffs of perfume whenever a wanton moment takes them.
It did not take long for perfumers to react to the plant’s scent. Perfumers’ manuals discuss an intense paste, called gardenia concrete. By the 20th century, the flower was better known in suffocating toiletries and corsages than on the bush.
Not everyone can carry off its cocktail of aromatics. Gardenias aren’t for Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. When they reached the peak of their vogue in the 1930s and ‘40s, they were behind Billie Holiday’s ear, on Bette Davis’ bosom. Not only were they gorgeous, but their bruised beauty could cut through gin, cigarette smoke and body odor.
Santa Barbara botanist Peter Riedel was a painstaking observer of plants introduced into Southern California for 40 years before compiling his 1957 book “Plants for Extra-Tropical Regions.” He celebrated the gardenia’s scent but noted that “the odor becomes offensive as the flowers turn from white to yellow.”
Perhaps. But one wonders if he wasn’t reacting to gardenia concrete. On the plant, the aging bloom is one scent of many. As the blossom fades, its vanilla and jasmine notes do get spicier. One of the glories of the plant is the way aging blossoms right next to opening ones create such complex registers of fragrance, from fresh and floral to a rich, mature gasp of musk.
The specimens that perfumed Garden’s funeral were probably Gardenia jasminoides, also known as Gardenia augusta, G. florida, G. grandiflora. These are the glossy shrubs splayed with lushly scented, pearly blooms that we see most commonly in garden centers. But classification can be tricky. Armstrong Garden Centers’ information sheet gives a fanciful account involving a sea captain stopping off in South Africa, taking a stroll, spotting a sweet-smelling tree and digging it up.
James Reveal, a taxonomist and professor emeritus from the University of Maryland, reckons that the Chinese plant traveled to England on a boat that went around the Cape of Good Hope. En route, it acquired the name Cape Jasmine.
After the Chinese plant was discovered, dozens of species of gardenias were found across the Pacific, including places in Indonesia, Hawaii, Southeast Asia and Africa.
By the 1950s, Riedel had counted about 70 species from around Asia, the Pacific and Africa. Today, the number is more like 250 and rising, including low shrubs that can be trained as ground cover and 40-foot trees used for timber.
In China, where G. jasminoides is called Zhizi hua, gardenias are old hat. They occur commonly enough to be recognizable in paintings going back more than 1,000 years, says Jin Chen, designer of the Chinese Garden at the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens. The plants are used in gardens, but no particular symbolic meaning comes to his mind.
The plant does have social significance, though. Its glorious white blooms turn into berries, which Riedel says are a source of yellow dye. Joan DeFato, plant sciences librarian at the Los Angeles County Arboretum & Botanic Garden, finds references to the berries in Chinese medicine, in which they are used as a poultice for sprains.
Most of us will not have seen gardenia berries. Gardenia jasminoides don’t produce fruit in the United States. Our gardenia-friendly places, mainly Florida, California and along the Gulf of Mexico, don’t have the sharp fall in night temperatures needed for the flower to turn to fruit.
The species that does fruit here is Gardenia thunbergia, which, unlike Cape Jasmine, really is from South Africa. It was named in honor of Carl Thunberg, a student of Linnaeus. It was introduced in Kew Gardens in London in 1773, decades after G. jasminoides made a stir.
According to Alice Notten of the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden in Cape Town, South Africa, the root is used as a skin medicine in southern Africa and the wood for tools. The Zulu name, umvalasangweni, means “back gate closer,” and the plant is used to secure cattle corrals.
The Afrikaans name, buffelsbal, refers to the shape of the egg-shaped fruit and means “buffalo testicles.” These can hang on a tree for more than a year. The plant is spread when elephants and ruminants eat the fruit, then deposit the seeds in fertilizing pats. Being short of gardenia fruit-studded elephant droppings, Americans generally propagate the plants from cuttings. But University of Florida cooperative extension sheets describe creating G. thunbergia rootstock from seedlings.
Riedel was early to appreciate the hardiness of the South African plant and how much better it was suited to the California climate. “This species is a much more permanent addition to any garden than grandiflora,” he wrote in the 1950s. “The plants always look well and thrifty.”
Though G. thunbergia is better suited to our climate, most nurseries offer cultivars of G. jasminoides: tall ones, dwarf ones, spreading ones. There are even scentless gardenias, though the idea is as appealing as nonalcoholic bourbon. In the 1940s, gardenias were gradually surpassed by camellias, which required just as much fuss to grow. They also demand water and shade, but provided a rainbow of color, all splashy and de-sexed for the 1950s. Abandoned by fashion, gardenias assumed their franker, more interesting role. They remain the erotic spirit of California gardens. They flower throughout summer’s sultriest month, July, when heat and perfume draw us into the gardens at dusk.
Ever wonder why there are so many birthdays in March?
Gardenias in July.
After love, death. According to “Growing Fragrant Plants” by Rayford Clayton Redell, gardenias were a popular enough graveyard flower that they now grow wild in Louisiana cemeteries, where they were left by mourners.
It is only the living, then, who find them so tricky to sustain. The key: If you kill one, remember how you treated it, and when you replace it, change the regimen. They like dappled sun, with direct light in morning and evening, at most.
Like most finicky exotics, Gardenia jasminoides is best grown in a pot or raised bed. It likes free-draining, acidic soil mixed with plenty of organic amendments. It will die at the mere mention of clay. Feed gardenias much as you would a camellia, giving it coffee grounds or some acid fertilizer and an iron amendment.
Gardening chat rooms on the Internet offer all sorts of intriguing tricks involving corncobs, dog pee, peanut shells and peat moss. Of the commercial fertilizers, Miracid and Ironite are both good gardenia foods.
Finally, start small and see how you get on. You don’t need a whole hedge of them. Gardenias are kind of like grand pianos. One is a glorious thing.
Emily Green can be reached at email@example.com
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Be prepared, in the extreme
Most gardenias are cultivars of the Chinese species Gardenia jasminoides. These vary enormously, from ground cover with little jasmine-like flowers to small trees. Before planting, remember the extreme soil and fertilizer requirements. Better yet, insist that the nursery sell the plant to you with a pot, potting mix and amendments.
‘Aimee’ or ‘First Love’: Commanding shrub; dark green leaves with large flowers; up to 4 inches in diameter.
‘August Beauty’: Cited by Armstrong Garden Centers as an evergreen screen; to 6 feet tall. Large double flowers; blooms all summer.
‘Mystery’: Large flowers; rangey habit; long blooming period.
‘Radicans’: Low-growing, expansive plant; according to author Rayford Clayton Redell, “superb ground cover for areas that you don’t really walk on.” Available in variegated versions.
‘Veitchii’: Neat 2- to 4-foot shrub spangled with small flowers over a long summer season.
‘White Gem’ or ‘Daisy’: According to Armstrong Garden Centers, introduced in 1997; a low-growing plant sporting “five-petaled, star or daisy-like flowers.”
Care tips: Armstrong’s history of Cape Jasmine may be fanciful, but the company’s plant care sheet is excellent. On the Web at
Cooperative Extension expertise: Comes from the University of Florida, on the Web at edis.ifas.ufl.edu/BODYMG336.
Gardenia thunbergia: The South African tree gardenia so well-suited to California climate is rarer in nurseries. Armstrong includes it on its plant list. Because it is bred as a rootstock, nurseries specializing in tropical plants should either stock it, or be able to order it for you.
For seeds, search the Internet or try Green Dealer, a tropical seed supplier in Louisville, KY. www.greendealer-exotic-seeds.com/seeds/ Gardenia.html.
For care instructions, go to the excellent Web site of the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden in Cape Town, South Africa, www.plantzafrica.com/plantefg/gardenthun.htm.
-- Emily Green