A Brief History of the Gardenia

Many of our best-loved plants first entered the South in Charleston. Here’s the fascinating story of the gardenia got through the region's garden gateway and to your backyard.
Steve Bender

It’s quite an honor to have a plant named after you. It’s an even bigger honor when that plant sports a flower with the most intoxicating fragrance in the world.

Dr. Alexander Garden, a Scottish physician and naturalist, moved to Charleston in 1752. He corresponded with English merchant John Ellis, who just happened to be a good friend of Carolus Linnaeus, the famous Swedish botanist. Linnaeus had developed the genus-and-species system for scientifically naming and classifying plants.

In 1758, Ellis visited a garden outside London to inspect an evergreen shrub thought to be a jasmine and blessed with powerfully scented double white flowers. Ellis doubted it was a true jasmine, and Linnaeus agreed. Ellis convinced Linnaeus to name the new find for his pen pal in Charleston, Alexander Garden. Enter the gardenia (Gardenia jasminoides). Fittingly, in 1762, the New World’s first gardenia was planted in Dr. Garden’s garden.

A swirl of blinding white, the gardenia’s waxy blossom is at once pure and sensual. So intoxicating is its sweetness that raising a bloom to your nose invites you to swoon. Intolerant of Northern winters, the gardenia saves its charms for the South―for prom girls’ corsages; blooms floating in birdbaths; and heaven-scented, lazy evenings spent chatting on the porch.