Here in the Piedmont, the choice of plants for gardens is defined by the limitations of a hot, wet climate. English Holly roots rot, Lilacs are listless, Sugar Maples melt, White Pines whine, Lady's Mantle limps, Firs fry, Primulas percolate, Delphiniums don't, and cool-loving plants of any description suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous summers. Yet hark (!) this heretofore maligned climate has at least one very precious advantage-Gardenias grow. Gardenias not only grow but they bloom in profusion giving a marvelous gift to Southern landscapes. The fragrant elegance of a new Gardenia blossom, open to the soft air of summer's evening, brings the ambience of the Old South to the new walks and lawns of today's gardens.
Native to southern China, Gardenia jasminoides, the Cape Jasmine or Common Gardenia, was named to commemorate Dr. Alexander Garden, a doctor of some eminence in Charleston, South Carolina, who corresponded with the renowned Swedish botanist, Linnaeus. Gardenia is a rounded, broad-leaved evergreen shrub that reaches 4 to 6 feet in height with approximately equal spread. Beautiful, 2 to 3 inch wide, densely creamy white flowers unfold from May through the early summer with the exotic character of Magnolia blossoms. The flowers are deliciously fragrant with a heady, sweet perfume that is carried for a long time on the humid air of summer. The foliage of Gardenia is equally as lovely as its flowers. Long, leathery, dark, glossy leaves remain a deep emerald green throughout the year. The flowers may set orange, berry-like fruits late in the summer.
Gardenias make wonderful specimen plants near walks, steps, gateways, or anywhere in the garden their fragrance can be appreciated. A marvelous example of a Gardenia planting can be found in Houston, Texas where a small Gardenia collection grows in a bed along a stone wall surrounding several teak chaise lounges scattered around a naturalized swimming pool. This wonderful arrangement allows the Gardenias' heavenly fragrance to waft over the swimmers as they recline following their relaxed exertion. Porches and patios are also wonderful sites for Gardenias, not only because they are often the most sheltered areas of a landscape, but also because of the delight that comes from breathing the perfume of Gardenias while rocking on a porch swing, counting fireflies. Where Gardenias are not fully hardy in winter, they make wonderful container plants which can then be moved and held in sun porches or other protected areas during the winter. The container also gives the homeowner the advantage of being able to shift the pots to places where the blossoms and fragrance can be most readily enjoyed.
Gardenia is hardy in Piedmont and Coastal Plain areas but will not survive the below 0F temperatures of Mountain region winters. Gardenia thrives in well-drained, high organic matter, acid soil in full sun or partial shade and should be protected from harsh winter winds. There are a few diseases and pests to contend with like white flies, canker and powdery mildew. But these beautiful shrubs are worth the little bit of extra effort it takes to help them prosper. Gardenia is easily propagated from softwood cuttings taken in summer and rooted under mist.
There are a number of cultivars of Gardenia that offer special beauty and drama. 'August Beauty' blooms very profusely with double flowers from May through September. 'Mystery', in addition to its magical name, has extra large 4 to 5" diameter double flowers and can be more upright than the species. The foliage of 'Variegata' has cream colored variegation which adds striking sophistication to this already elegant plant. 'Radicans' has a unique, almost prostrate habit with small leaves and blooms of only 1" diameter. It reaches only 2 feet in height but spreads 2 to 3 times its height in width to make a lovely dense mass. Both 'Variegata' and 'Radicans' are less hardy than the others and particular care should be taken when siting these cultivars to keep them well protected from very low temperatures and extremes of winter weather.
In the early heat of summer, Gardenias unfold rich creamy flowers whose fragrance drifts beautifully near. In the Shade House at The NCSU Arboretum (now the JC Raulston Arboretum), the Gardenias are close to the gravel path where their perfume can be easily admired. Come out to the Arboretum and walk through the gardens and collections to the Shade House where you will handily find the Gardenias by following the trail of their enticing aroma.