It was an accidental meeting. American jazz great, Billie Holiday, was preparing for a performance when she burned her hair with a curling iron. Desperate to hide the mistake.
Holiday took a suggestion from a quick-thinking colleague, who offered her a flower. Whether it was the scent or the salvation, from that night onward, Lady Day's signature became a sultry, white gardenia. And, no wonder...
It wasn't until the mid-18th century, when the gardenia plant was introduced to English gardens, that the scent-filled evergreen found a scientific name.
In its native Asia, where the gardenia bush and gardenia tree had flourished for more than 1000 years, the plant was known as Kuchinashi (Japan) and Zhi zi (China).
Ellis, Linnaeus and Garden
It was only after the gardenia reached England that it became botanically official, thanks to naturalist John Ellis. Ellis, a merchant fascinated with importing seeds from around the world, brought the unclassified evergreen to the attention of taxonomy father and botanist Carolus Linneaus.
Ellis named the plant Gardenia jasiminoides, after American naturalist Dr. Alexander Garden, vice president of the Royal Society of London. The designation jasiminoides is derived from the plant's similarity to jasmine.
Even today, the gardenia's moniker is Cape Jessamine--"Cape" added in the mistaken belief that the plant's origin was the Cape of Good Hope, Africa.
Description and Characteristics
The parentage of all gardenias began in the Old World. Asia's naturally sprawling gardenia bushes and trees nestle in the mild and subtropical regions of Japan and southern China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Thailand and northern India.
Single and double-blossomed gardenias were portrayed in paintings during China's Song Dynasty (960 AD to 1279 AD).
Although many of the more than 280 varieties of gardenias can be very fussy about soil conditions, sunlight, temperatures, humidity and wet, this buoyant evergreen has adapted well to cross-breeding.
Forms - Gardenia bush, shrub, border, house plant, hedge, ground cover, tree, bonsai
Sun - Full sun to partial shade
Soil - Well-conditioned, organic
Blooms - Spring to Summer (May to July)
pH - 5 to 6
Temperature - 68°F-75°F day, minimum 60°F night
Wet - Prefers moisture including high humidity, somewhat drought tolerant
Leaves - 2 to 4" long, oval, waxy, bright to dark green
Flowers - 1” up to 10” diameter, coiled and scalloped, fragrant
Colors - White, cream, pale yellow, orange
Fruit - Post-bloom yellowish-red berry
Bark - Gray
USDA Hardiness Zones - 6 to 11
Height - Under 1' to beyond 8'
The color white is perceived as purifying, lending a garden an aura of spirituality and peace, as it tones down harsher reds and oranges.
Light-to-white colored gardenias are visually and redolently symbolic positives, representing life’s finer things--elegance, grace, beauty and secret love.
Cultivation and Care
Dwarf gardenias, also known as Gardenia radicans, are a diminutive variety of G. jasminoides, favored for adding a spring-to-early-summer, perfumed border near the doors and windows of homes. A more maintenance-free variety is the 'Frost Proof' gardenia, which blooms even after late-spring frost.
In 1998, a new double-blooming cultivar was created, the 'Crown Jewel' gardenia, which flowers well into summer and withstands the cold, even into Hardiness Zone 6.
How to Grow Gardenias
Indoors or out, gardenias are challenging plants to grow and maintain, although cross breeding has extended some cultivars' growing seasons and made the delicate gardenia flower more tolerant to unfavorable temperatures.
Mixed peat moss and compost, worked into the outdoor planting soil, will give gardenias a head start against destructive wet feet. Since gardenias don’t like to change locations once they’ve been planted, landscape designers must take into consideration drainage, air circulation, sun directness and temperature exposure.
Gardenias should be planted away from strong drafts, hot afternoon sun and soggy ground.
Gardenias like stability, enjoying full sunlight but disliking intense heat. Moisture and high humidity are welcome to gardenias.
A slight drought is easier for the plant to manage than soaked roots. Growing gardenias indoors must accommodate for what home interiors lack in air moisture and sunlight for gardenias to survive. Gardenia fertilizer should be applied regularly, except in autumn and winter. Epsom Salt is often added to the soil by gardeners to boost phosphorus and lower acidity.
Gardenias don’t require frequent pruning. It's done mostly to remove dead wood or to reshape a straggling plant. Only the most vigorously-growing gardenias, or those being trimmed into specials shapes, require pruning more than every two years. It is best to wait to prune until summer's end, after all the blossoms have fallen naturally and before the new buds are set.
It is also important to make sure at least 4 to 6 inches of stem remain on the plant after pruning to encourage the gardenia's future health.
Diseases and Pests
A gardenia's body language is the surest sign of symptoms of unhappiness. Yellow leaves and loss of buds (bud drop) will develop when there is too much or too little light, water, humidity, fertilizer or heat.
Common Gardenia Diseases Common Gardenia Pests
- Canker (fungus)
- Spider mites
- Bacterial and fungal leaf spots
- Mealy bugs
- Sooty mold
- Powdery mildew
- Cotton and Mushroom Root Rot
- Crown Gall
Usefulness of Gardenias
Snow-white gardenias are sought-after corsages, wreaths and bouquets and are well established in luxurious fragrances and cosmetics. Scented candles and gardenia oil are aromatherapy staples. For the Chinese, who have had the pleasure of naturally available gardenias for at least a millennium, gardenias are less ornamental and more useful as cloth dye and curatives.
Among the gardenia's accepted medicinal applications:
-Treats infections, smallpox and diabetes
-Soothes headache, fever, ulcers, swelling, flu, bites, burns and anxiety
Grand Old Garden Flower
From its ancient healing properties to its modern sensory pleasures, the gardenia has moved beyond the temperate hills of Asia to the world stage of favorite plants. As it becomes ever more garden-adaptable, the elegant gardenia's corollated blooms and stimulating smell are reaching more gardens and more appreciative noses than ever.
Click thumbnails to see pictures: