Gardenias: A Fragrance That Captivates

These world-class evergreens deserve a special place in every Southern garden.
Gene B. Bussell

Sultry as a summer evening and as intoxicating as an exotic perfume, the scent of gardenias settles like a memory onto your soul. The blossoms are just as enticing. Buds shaped like seashells unfurl into velvet soft flowers in the warmth and humidity of early evening. But it's the fragrance that captivates.

A Good Friend
Gardenias (Gardenia jasminoides), or Cape jasmines, have been adorning the gardens of the South for generations. They put on a big show of blooms beginning as early as spring and continue to produce flowers throughout the summer and into fall. Blossoms open white and then fade to gold. Use these versatile shrubs as specimens, planted en masse as hedges, or grown in containers.

Let potted plants grow naturally, or clip and train them as topiary standards. Place them on your deck or patio where you can take advantage of their beautiful blooms and fragrance. A benefit of keeping gardenias in pots is the ability to move them around as you like to enjoy their perfume.

If you find their fragrance overpowering, you can locate them farther out into your landscape and still enjoy their scent. Otherwise, place them along pathways, at the corners of your house, or near windows where you can appreciate them even from inside your home.

DID YOU KNOW?

  • Gardenias originated in the Orient but are named in honor of a Southerner, Dr. Alexander Garden, an 18th-century botanist and physician from Charleston, South Carolina
  • Radicans' gardenia's small leaves and size make it an ideal plant to train as a bonsai.
  • Jazz singer Billie Holiday considered gardenias to be her signature flower and wore them in her hair whenever she performed.

TRY THIS
Combine these to create a beautiful bouquet.

  • gardenia blossoms
  • variegated hosta leaves
  • fern fronds

When adding gardenias to your garden, set the root-ball about 1 inch higher than the surrounding soil to help ensure adequate drainage. Then, gently taper the soil up to the top of the exposed root-ball. Mulch plants with pine straw or chopped leaves.  

Gardenias need acid soil with a pH between 5 and 6.5. Feed them when they are actively growing with a fertilizer made for acid-loving plants (such as azaleas and camellias). Or you can use fish emulsion or blood meal. If your plant's leaves begin to yellow, spray with chelated iron. Epsom salts (magnesium sulfate) can also help to solve this common problem.

Gardenias appeal to whiteflies, scales, and mealybugs. Control outbreaks by applying a light horticultural oil such as Sunspray Ultra-Fine. If left untreated, severe infestations of these sucking insects can lead to a sooty mold buildup. This black mold does not really harm the plant but does slow down photosynthesis.

Most all of these problems can be avoided by giving gardenias what they need. Moist, acid, well-drained soil; morning sun and afternoon shade; good air circulation; and proper fertilization will make them happy. Share the joy of these plants with friends; they root easily and can be grown from seeds, making them great pass-alongs.

With lustrous leaves, beautiful flowers, and a heavenly fragrance, gardenias are the perfect plants to grace the days of summer.

Look for These
SelectionFlowerHeightWidthCharacteristics
'Aimee'large,
double
5 to 8
feet
3 to 6
feet
early-spring bloom
'August
Beauty'
large,
double
4 to 6
feet
3 to 4
feet
blooms heavily from
spring into fall;
good in containers
'Kleim's
Hardy'
medium,
single
2 to 3
feet
2 to 3
feet
cold-hardy selection;
can tolerate
temperatures to zero
'Mystery'large,
double
6 to 8
feet
6 to 8
feet
classic favorite; large,
upright form; good as
a hedge or specimen
'Radicans'small,
double
2 to 3
feet
2 to 4
feet
low growing; use as a
ground cover or short
shrub; variegated form
available
'Veitchii'medium,
double
3 to 4
feet
2 to 3
feet
rounded form;
blooms heavily
from spring into fall;
good in containers


What's Your Name?
There are many selections, each with different qualities, making it easy to find the right one for your yard. The differences primarily involve the ultimate height and habit but also include leaf and flower size, bloom periods, and cold hardiness. Most have double flowers, though beautiful single forms exist.  

'Mystery' attains the largest size. It grows upright and benefits from an occasional pruning. It is ideal as a specimen or, when kept clipped, as a formal or informal hedge. 'August Beauty' and 'Veitchii' have long bloom periods, making them worthwhile additions to any garden. Most gardenias do best in the Lower, Coastal, or Tropical South. 'Kleim's Hardy' gardenia can withstand the cold of the Middle South. In the Upper South where you cannot grow gardenias outside year-round, overwinter them in a cool greenhouse, or enjoy them as potted plants inside. However, keeping them healthy in your home can be tricky due to potential insect problems.

The Whole Truth
Gardenias give a lot, and, to look their best, they want a bit in return. These plants love sun. They also lie a little shade. So morning sun with afternoon shade is ideal. Good air circulation is a must. They prefer moist, acid soil that has good drainage with lots of organic matter, such as peat.

"Gardenias: A Fragrance That Captivates" is from the June 2005 issue of Southern Living.