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Who can resist bending down for a sniff after walking past a blooming gardenia? Those gardening in the southeast can tell you that there is nothing like a warm summer breeze perfumed with the fragrance of gardenias, named by Carl Linnaeus for fellow naturalist, Dr. Alexander Garden, a resident of South Carolina. Though a favorite of the South, gardenias are not native to the States. Lovers of water, heat, and humidity, varieties come from places like Japan and China in East Asia, India, South Africa, and Polynesia. Nevertheless, gardenias have dedicated fans all over the world.
The gardenia genus includes more than one hundred species, and the look of foliage and flowers can vary greatly between them. Leaves are waxy, shiny, thick, and a rich dark green. Flowers may be small or quite large, and can come in single or double varieties. The crisp white coloring of the flowers has made gardenias a very popular addition to wedding and sympathy arrangements, and, of course, the fragrance is a knockout. The scent of a gardenia is heavy, tropical, and warm, and for fans of orange blossom, honey suckle, hyacinth, and jasmine, the gardenia is intoxicating. Depending on the variety, the plant can be a dwarf size of only a foot or two or several feet tall forming a small tree. Flowers bloom as the weather becomes warmer in mid-spring to summer, and in the cooler months, the gardenia forms seedpods that add interest to the plant when flowers are gone.
Gardenias have a rich history, especially as a medicinal plant.. In China, the plant is called zhi zi, and herbalists and experts in traditional Chinese medicine typically administer gardenia via tea to cool hot blood that causes bleeding and irritability. Poultices of the fruit are used topically to ease swelling and treat bruises, abscesses, and sprains. Gardenias have also been used to create yellow dyes for edible and inedible applications. The essential oil produced from the flowers is used heavily in the cosmetic industry—gardenia-scented soaps, lotions, perfumes, and candles are extremely popular throughout the globe. Fans of Billie Holiday will recall her iconic and signature up-do of beautifully cascading gardenias. Use of gardenias for adornment is still popular—it is a traditional flower for corsages and boutonnières.
Gardenias are, sadly, notoriously difficult to maintain, especially for those attempting to
make houseplants of them. Though varieties thrive in large containers, replicating the humidity, light, and water requirements of the plant indoors can be tricky. In general, gardenias are happiest in full to part sun, and at temperatures around 70 degrees during the day and 60 degrees at night. Acidic soil is a must, so regular application of an acidifying fertilizer, sulphur, or peat is essential for those that live in areas where soil tends to be more alkaline. Gardenias love water, but they don’t like to marinate in it. Plant them in soil with excellent drainage, and water regularly. To keep them moist without drowning them, they should be mulched and composted to increase water retention. When planting, gardenias should be spaced far enough apart that they won’t crowd as they grow. Those growing more hardy varieties in cooler climates should consider using some method to protect their gardenias from frost and harsh winter conditions. Gardenias, unfortunately, are susceptible to many pests and diseases. Keep an eye out for whiteflies that can cause sooty mold, aphids, mites, and mealybugs, and for abnormal bud-dropping, chlorosis, and leaf spots.