Archive for Sunday, August 3, 2003

Glorious gardenias

Fragrant flower memorable for flooding the senses

August 3, 2003


When the physician and botanist Alexander Garden died in London in 1791, there were gardenias at his funeral. It was a fragrant end to a long feud.

Garden, 61, recently had returned from Charleston, S.C., where for 30 years he was an advocate of American flora and fauna. He repeatedly had suggested that Carolus Linnaeus, the Swedish prince of botany, didn't know his trees. When Garden went back to Britain to die, he was introduced to a waxy-leafed plant with intensely scented flowers. In honor of his contribution to botany, it had been named after him. It did not come from his beloved Carolinas but from China.

Behold the gardenia, Mr. Garden.

This exquisitely insulting honor captures the mix of glory and rot that Westerners bring to the gardenia. The plant itself is a blameless foil, like the Maltese falcon, except fragrant.

That fragrance. That mix of vanilla, jasmine, nutmeg, that mix of sweetness and spice that only gets spicier as the blooms age. That smell that floods our senses so thoroughly that, once you smell it, you'll always know it.

It's as if the plant somehow knows its power over us. There is something mischievous about the way gardenias release their scent. They probably do it to attract pollinators with bad vision but keen noses, mainly evening moths and lucky bats.

But unlike jasmine, gardenias do not turn on the scent exclusively at night. They emit when they feel like it and are only randomly in the mood, day or night, letting off sudden seductive puffs of perfume whenever a wanton moment takes them.

In vogue

It did not take long for perfumers to react to the plant's scent. Perfumers' manuals discuss an intense paste, called gardenia concrete. By the 20th century, the flower was better known in suffocating toiletries and corsages than on the bush.

Not everyone can carry off its cocktail of aromatics. Gardenias aren't for Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. When they reached the peak of their vogue in the 1930s and '40s, they were behind Billie Holiday's ear, on Bette Davis' bosom. Not only were they gorgeous, but their bruised beauty could cut through gin, cigarette smoke and body odor.

Santa Barbara, Calif., botanist Peter Riedel was a painstaking observer of plants introduced into Southern California for 40 years before compiling his 1957 book "Plants for Extra-Tropical Regions." He celebrated the gardenia's scent but noted that "the odor becomes offensive as the flowers turn from white to yellow."

Perhaps. But one wonders if he wasn't reacting to gardenia concrete. On the plant, the aging bloom is one scent of many. As the blossom fades, its vanilla and jasmine notes do get spicier. One of the glories of the plant is the way aging blossoms right next to opening ones create such complex registers of fragrance, from fresh and floral to a rich, mature gasp of musk.

The specimens that perfumed Garden's funeral were probably Gardenia jasminoides, also known as Gardenia augusta, G. florida, G. grandiflora. These are the glossy shrubs splayed with lushly scented, pearly blooms that we see most commonly in garden centers. But classification can be tricky. Armstrong Garden Centers' information sheet gives a fanciful account involving a sea captain stopping off in South Africa, taking a stroll, spotting a sweet-smelling tree and digging it up.

Plant's travels

James Reveal, a taxonomist and professor emeritus from the University of Maryland, reckons that the Chinese plant traveled to England on a boat that went around the Cape of Good Hope. En route, it acquired the name Cape Jasmine.

After the Chinese plant was discovered, dozens of species of gardenias were found across the Pacific, including places in Indonesia, Hawaii, Southeast Asia and Africa.

By the 1950s, Riedel had counted about 70 species from around Asia, the Pacific and Africa. Today, the number is more like 250 and rising, including low shrubs that can be trained as ground cover and 40-foot trees used for timber.

Most of us will not have seen gardenia berries. Gardenia jasminoides don't produce fruit in the United States. Our gardenia-friendly places, mainly Florida, California and along the Gulf of Mexico, don't have the sharp fall in night temperatures needed for the flower to turn to fruit.

The species that does fruit here is Gardenia thunbergia, which, unlike Cape Jasmine, really is from South Africa. It was named in honor of Carl Thunberg, a student of Linnaeus. It was introduced in Kew Gardens in London in 1773, decades after G. jasminoides made a stir.

Versatile plant

According to Alice Notten of the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden in Cape Town, South Africa, the root is used as a skin medicine in southern Africa and the wood for tools. The Zulu name, "umvalasangweni," means "back gate closer," and the plant is used to secure cattle corrals.

The Afrikaans name, "buffelsbal," refers to the shape of the egg-shaped fruit and means "buffalo testicles." These can hang on a tree for more than a year. The plant is spread when elephants and ruminants eat the fruit, then deposit the seeds in fertilizing pats. Being short of gardenia fruit-studded elephant droppings, Americans generally propagate the plants from cuttings. But University of Florida cooperative extension sheets describe creating G. thunbergia rootstock from seedlings.

Although G. thunbergia is better suited to our climate, most nurseries offer cultivars of G. jasminoides: tall ones, dwarf ones, spreading ones. There are even scentless gardenias, although the idea is as appealing as nonalcoholic bourbon. In the 1940s, gardenias gradually were surpassed by camellias, which required just as much fuss to grow. They also demand water and shade, but provided a rainbow of color, all splashy and de-sexed for the 1950s. Abandoned by fashion, gardenias assumed their franker, more interesting role.

According to "Growing Fragrant Plants" by Rayford Clayton Redell, gardenias were a popular enough graveyard flower that they now grow wild in Louisiana cemeteries, where they were left by mourners.

It is only the living, then, who find them so tricky to sustain. The key: If you kill one, remember how you treated it, and when you replace it, change the regimen. They like dappled sun, with direct light in morning and evening, at most.

Like most finicky exotics, Gardenia jasminoides is best grown in a pot or raised bed. It likes free-draining, acidic soil mixed with plenty of organic amendments. It will die at the mere mention of clay. Feed gardenias much as you would a camellia, giving it coffee grounds or some acid fertilizer and an iron amendment.

Gardening chat rooms on the Internet offer all sorts of intriguing tricks involving corncobs, dog urine, peanut shells and peat moss. Of the commercial fertilizers, Miracid and Ironite are both good gardenia foods.

Finally, start small and see how you get on. You don't need a whole hedge of them. Gardenias are kind of like grand pianos. One is a glorious thing.

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