Monday, May 28, 2012

aroma therapy

top: "Jasmoides" type Gardenia
lower left and right: "Thunbergia" type Gardenias

From a horticultural perspective, perhaps the finest thing about Gulf Rim gardening is the vast array of fragrance plants that we have at our disposal – most of them exotic, and most of them limited in hardiness to horticulture zones 8b-9.  That's why the further south you go, the better the gardens smell . . .

For example, everyone living along the Gulf Rim – be ye gardeners, or not – must have sweet olive (Osmanthus fragrans aka “tea olive”) and night-blooming jessamine (Cestrum nocturnum). I mean, just for the general sake of sanity, ya'll. If you live in an apartment, that's no real excuse. Grow 'em in big-ass tubs. Grow them you must.

And the fragrance plant list for our region stretches on and on from these two storied selections: true jasmines (Jasminum sp.), banana shrub (Michelia figo, aka “banana magnolia”), sweet-bay magnolia (Magnolia virginina), citrus, hundreds of varieties of roses (especially the antiques), winter honeysuckle (Lonicera fragrantissima), and on and on.

And then there are the gardenias....ah, what a group....and is it even possible to accurately describe their scent? Best I could come up with would be something like, “heady, heavy, near-sickly-sweet-musk, with (on some evenings) a hint of citrus.” Whatever, gardenias surely belong right up there with sweet olive and night-blooming jessamine. All are so easy to grow down here, and all have drawn out bloom seasons. On average, gardenias bloom 4-6 weeks; sweet olive and night-blooming jessamine, more like 8-16 weeks, if not more(!).

In researching gardenias for this article, I quickly ran into substantial taxonomical confusion – which is not at all a common thing in researching most plant and animal groups. Of course nowadays with the internet and all, such a problem should be handled with relative ease. Not so with gardenias. The more I searched, the more confusing things got. So what “facts” you might read here represent the best that I could come up with. If anyone out there can help straighten me out on this matter, please contact me at

Gardenias are native mostly to the Old World tropics: southern Asia and Africa; and a few species apparently native to northern Australia and Polynesia. According to sources, 140-200+ species within the genus Gardenia exist – mostly shrubs, but some trees as well. Here within the southern Atlantic and Gulf coasts of the U.S., the gardenias that we know and love are spring/summer blooming evergreen shrubs featuring very attractive deep-green, glossy foliage.

Here in southern Louisiana, the gardenia that I pretty much grew up with is 6' X 6' large-leaved shrub which produces double “rumpled”looking blooms around late-May and June. This is the selection that Neil Odenwald (Southern Plants for Landscape Design, 1987) calls Gardenia jasmoides, with a (maybe so, maybe not) cultivar name of 'Mystery'.

Above photo is pretty much what my 'Mystery' gardenia looks like. Note especially the rumpled look to its flowers. This photo, however, is actually of the dwarf gardenia, Gardenia jasmoides 'Prostrata' also known in some sources as Gardenia radicans. The point is, both this dwarf cultivar and the larger 'Mystery' gardenia of my youth share those rumpled-looking blooms.

Then there's this cultivar (above), of which I've yet to dig up a cultivar name, but which multiple sources list as Gardenia jasmoides or Gardenia augusta. Note how the bloom begins in a nodding position (so I just call it “the nodding type”). This gardenia features the largest leaves and the largest blooms of any species/cultivar with which I am familiar.

Once “the nodding type” opens up, the bloom occasionally rares up into a horizontal position. Blooms age into a fine tawny-cream color, and become even more fragrant before dropping.

7' "hip gardenia" at our place

And then there are the smaller-leaved, single-flowered gardenias – referred to by Odenwald as Gardenia thunbergia – which form telltale, red-orange “hips” after bloom drop. Common names for this class of gardenia include “star gardenia,” “daisy gardenia,” and “hip gardenia.” I've seen other sources refer to these as Gardenia scabrella. Some sources list this species group as native to northern Australia; others to south Africa. Up until only recently in Louisiana, this species group was seen only around the old plantation homes along the Mississippi River. Today, you can find them in many south Louisiana nurseries. I suspect that Neil Odenwald played a major role in getting them back into commercial production around these parts.

da hip

Beyond their very cool flowers, hip gardenias feature relatively tiny leaves, providing an outstanding fine-textured habit in the landscape. The “standard” hip gardenia grows to 8' X 6' and it's a wonderful thing to see such tiny, densely-arrayed, leaves on such a large shrub.

There's also a more dwarfish form of hip gardenia called 'Daisy' which grows only to 4-5' in height.

bloom comparison: l-r 'Daisy' (note wide petals), "Hip" (narrow petals),
and "Jasmoides" (double-flowered)

foliage comparison: top, "Jasmoides" (4" long);
middle, "Hip"; bottom 'Daisy' (thinner/longer, similar to G. jasmoides 'Prostrata')
on all, note fine venation and glossy finish....very fancy.....

There are several more types that I don't have space (or photos) to mention. All I can say is the three types that I've featured above have all done beautifully here -- even in my mucky black clay.

Tell ya what, regardless of which cultivar you choose (I suggest making room for all of them), that heavy, musky-sweet gardenia fragrance wafting up your nose faithfully each morning and evening for weeks on end will do wonders for the “harried-mind-syndrome” that most of us seem to carry around these days.