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Fragrant gardenia has South Carolina connection

Posted Tuesday, August 16, 2005 - 10:22 am

By Durant Ashmore

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Gardenias are wonderful plants that are now adding their beautiful flowers and pleasing aromas to landscape gardens throughout the Piedmont. Please be sure to make use of gardenias around your decks and patios so that you can fully enjoy the benefits that they bring.

There is a slight South Carolina connection with gardenias. The genus was named in pre-Revolutionary wartime in honor of a Charleston doctor named Alexander Garden.

Pre-Revolutionary war times in America were exciting times for American botanists. The amazing flora and fauna of our great nation were being actively sought out and cataloged by an assortment of different collectors. Alexander Garden was very much interested in the natural history of our state and published many accounts among which included descriptions of Helesia, different cochineal insects, the mud iguana of South Carolina and the medicinal uses of pink rot (a plant of which I do not have a clue).

One of the correspondents of Dr. Garden was the famous Swedish botanist, Carolus Linneaus. Out of gratitude to Dr. Garden for his contributions Linneaus named the plant genus Gardenia in his honor.

Unfortunately, Dr. Garden chose the wrong side to associate with during the Revolutionary War. His property was confiscated and he returned to England in 1783. To show how divided our state was during these times, it is interesting to note that his property was awarded to his son, also named Alexander. Dr. Garden's son was awarded his father's property because he served the important position of aide-de-camp to General Nathaniel Greene (the namesake of Greenville).

Gardenia is a plant that is native to China and Japan. The common name is Cape Jasmine. I assume that the jasmine scented plant is found on a cape somewhere in that area.

Gardenias can be categorized according to their size. The largest of the gardenias grow about six feet tall and wide. These are the oldest of the gardenias used in the Piedmont. This time of year they are covered with aromatic white flowers that can be cut and placed in a bowl of water on the dining room table. Their aroma will grace any area in which they are placed. "August Beauty" and "Mystery" are two large growing gardenias that are readily available.

The mid-size growing gardenias are "Daisy" and/or "Kleim's Hardy." The taxonomists are arguing about whether or not these are two different plants. They look exactly alike to me. These plants grow about three feet wide and four feet tall. They really are great to use as a shrub border or as a foundation plant. They are best used in groups and not individually as the larger gardenias are. The mid-size gardenias have a single, flat bloom that is different from the other gardenias. When the plant is in full bloom it is a joy to behold.

The smallest of the gardenias is dwarf gardenia or Gardenia radicans. Because this gardenia grows so low and its limbs can root themselves and spread it is sometimes referred to as trailing gardenia. Dwarf gardenia grows about two and a half feet tall and wide. It has the same double bloom that the larger gardenias have. Dwarf gardenia is extremely useful in our contemporary landscapes. The trend for the past 30 years has been to use dwarf plants leading to a low maintenance landscape. Dwarf gardenias make excellent foreground plants that are able to extend depth in this type of setting.

There are several considerations to take into account when using gardenias. The most notable one is the cold hardiness factor. Cold winter winds can kill gardenias back to their roots. This happened in 1984 when our temperature reached zero. In 1993, our temperature reached four degrees and gardenias were severely affected again, but most of them recuperated.

Do not plant gardenias out in the open or on northwest exposures. Our coldest winds come from the northwest. If you plant gardenias on the southeast side of your house they will do the best. They will get maximum protection from the wind and they will warm up the quickest from early morning sun on a cold winter day.

A very bothersome pest that gardenias have is white fly. Be sure to inspect gardenias before you buy them to make sure they are free of this bug. White flies excrete "honeydew" which turns to sooty mold and can ruin your plant. One boon from our 1993 cold spell was that apparently four degrees temperature is sufficiently cold to kill whiteflies. If these cold spells come in a 10-year pattern we may luck out and put another severe hurting on the white fly population soon. If you don't feel like trusting my amateur weather predictions you may try to kill whiteflies by spraying. A new product that is available now which appears to be effective on whitefly is called Endeavor. It is available in the trade, but I'm not sure at this point if it is available to the public yet.

My advice is: use gardenias liberally and enjoy them immensely.

Editor's note: Columnist Durant Ashmore, MLA, of Fountain Inn, is certified by the South Carolina Nursery Association. He can be reached at 243-3446 or

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