I will never forget the time my older brother was describing the color of swans to my young son.

"They're white, just like my teeth," said my brother.

"Your teeth are yellow," countered my son.

Well, there just isn't any way to recover from that.


Yellow teeth remind me of the biggest failure of gardenia. It's almost impossible to photograph one in full bloom where all of the flowers look nice, bright, and white. Older flowers turn yellow as new white ones unfurl. It's like gazing at an ear of yellow-and-white corn. Could someone not invent some gardenia whitening strips?

Don't get me wrong. I love gardenia (Gardenia jasminoides), also known as Cape jasmine. No plant better expresses the grace and beauty of the South.

How the plant acquired both its common and botanical names is an interesting story to those who find such things interesting. According to James Cothran's Gardens and Historic Plants of the Antebellum South (a totally excellent reference the Grump highly recommends), "Cape" refers to the Africa's Cape of Good Hope, where the shrub was thought to have originated. In fact, it hails from China. "Jasmine" is a misnomer too. After gardenia found its way to England in 1754, Phillip Miller, author of the Gardener's Dictionary, mistakenly classified it as a jasmine. Twit. Just because it smells good, I guess.

In 1758, John Ellis, an English merchant and naturalist, visited Richard Warner's garden near London to see an exciting new plant with fragrant, double, white flowers brought from Africa by a sea captain. Ellis sent a specimen to his friend, Carolus Linnaeus, the renowned Swedish botanist and creator of horticulture's's system of binomial nomenclature. (Without Linnaeus, we would have no tree named Metasequoia glyptostroboides. Think about that!) This system assigns every plant a genus name and species name. There is a similar system for animals. For example, the scientific name for the Grumpy Gardener is Hunkiness maximus.

Linnaeus planned to name the shrub Warneria,but Ellis would have none of it. He'd been obtaining American native plants from Dr. Alexander Garden, a well-known physician in Charleston, South Carolina. Ellis insisted the new shrub be named Gardenia. After protesting that Garden would be more appropriately honored by naming a new American plant after him, Linnaeus relented.

The first gardenias to make it to America appeared in Dr. Garden's garden in 1762. Unfortunately, none of the plants survived for long. Maybe Dr.Garden treated them with leeches. Maybe they didn't have medical insurance. More gardenias soon arrived, however. The first gardenias offered for sale that we know of were listed in John Bartram's Catalogue of Trees, Shrubs, and Herbaceous Plants in 1807. (Hmmm.....wonder if Bradford pear and golden euonymus were included?) Once people smelled the flowers, gardenias were a smash hit.

I cannot think of a single plant more sensuously fragrant than gardenia. The fragrance is heavy, intoxicating, almost overpowering at times. One bloom can perfume a room.

Being old school, I prefer the large, double-flowered varieties whose flowers make perfect corsages, like 'First Love,' 'August Beauty,' 'Miami Supreme,' and 'Mystery.' For some reason, single-flowered types like 'Kleim's Hardy' (shown above) have gained favor in recent years for their open, star-shaped blooms. Frankly, I think they look weird.

Nope, for my money, I'll take the old-fashioned doubles every time. Until they turn yellow.


What Gardenia Needs

Light: Full to partial sun

Soil: Moist, well-drained, acid (in alkaline areas, grow it in a pot)

Prune: Immediately after flowering

Pests: White fly, mealybugs, scale, spider mites (more serious if grown indoors)

Hardiness: Hardy outside to Zone 7. At 0 degrees, may die to the ground and come back.

Propagation: Cuttings root easily in summer; I have a plant from Margaret Mosely in Decatur, Georgia that she says she started from a cutting rooted in water. Who knew?