We have one Gardenia jasminoides at work. I think it's been the same one for a while now, because it's big, and it's old enough that the price tag has partly faded and fallen apart, which happens to plants that have been around a while. I think I've even seen this particular plant bloom before, last spring, as a customer. And it's a nice enough plant, and flowers are pretty and all, but I never really saw the point to trying to grow Gardenia indoors. Flowers, okay. Reasonably pleasant, glossy green foliage – great. But they could hardly be worth the trouble, could they?
Because let's face it, they don't go out of their way to be growable indoors. Many, many pests and diseases like them, including: spider mites, aphids, scale, mealybugs, whiteflies, assorted beetles and fungi, and powdery mildew. The petals will turn brown if handled (or even, in some cases, touched). They don't like windy conditions. They can sunburn. They drop flowers if they're too wet, overfertilized, too hot, or too cold. They don't like stuffy conditions with no air movement either. They're prone to iron chlorosis (yellowing of the leaves due to lack of iron) if the soil pH is too high, if roots have been damaged, if soil isn't well aerated, and so forth. They tend not to rebloom indoors, though they may if they get to summer outside when temperatures are warm. They need bright light pretty much all the time, and high humidity, and they won't set buds without cool night temperatures. There's just nothing easy about them at all.
Even so, there are some people out there who can do it. We got a call at work a couple months ago from a woman who said she was having troubles with a Gardenia that she'd had for thirty-some years. Which, granted, the problems sounded pretty serious over the phone, and possibly she lost the plant, or will at some point, but even so, anybody who's kept one for that long has more or less proven that it's possible.
But for me, the question was still, why bother? I mean, the flowers are kind of elegant, the way the petals are all kind of folded up together in a spiral when they open, and they're nicely scented and everything, but surely there are nice architectural flowers with pleasant scents out there that wouldn't be so problematic. Maybe a Citrus of some kind, or Jasminum. What's the big deal with Gardenia?
And then the one at work flowered. Just one flower. And I realized that it's not so much about the shape of the flower, nice though it is, or the leaves being dark green and glossy, though that is also attractive. It's not even about the flowers' scent being pleasant, not in and of itself.
There is a depth to the scent, a dimension, that you don’t pick up just from leaning in to take a quick sniff and then moving on. You have to live with a Gardenia for a little while to experience the smell properly. Or any smell, really. I have similar feelings about the orange jasmine tree, Murraya paniculata: smells change from one time of day to another, they get mixed with others, they progress. Sansevieria trifasciata and Crassula muscosa flowers both smell very different on the first day than they do on the third. Gardenia doesn't seem to change as much (though they do smell better when newer and fresher), but you need some time to appreciate them properly all the same. You have to be going about your business and then stopped in your tracks by a whiff of the scent, repeatedly, for it to really sink in: it's not enough to just stop and sniff one when you're in Lowe's and say, oh, that's nice, or whatever it is you'd say.
I find it hard to come up with a sensible description that would explain the smell to someone who had never encountered one before, but the two words that keep coming to mind are sweet and balanced. Sweet because there's a sort of powdery vanilla (verging on glazed donut) angle to the smell that's not something you usually find in flowers, though it's subtle, and balanced because there's nothing to the smell that's especially overpowering or cloying: it's sweet, and it's floral, but neither one dominates. I could be wrong, but I get the feeling that a room full of Gardenia flowers would be just as awesome as a room containing a single one, unlike some flowers where one is nice and ten is way too much.
There are, of course, many plants that have pleasantly-scented flowers: Hoya carnosa, orange trees (Citrus x sinensis), the aforementioned Murraya paniculata, even Spathiphyllum spp.1 and Dracaena surculosa. But there's no comparison. Let me make an analogy with sounds: Gardenia is k. d. lang doing the whole Ingenue album. Citrus, by contrast, is Fran Drescher whining about something.2
I may sound like I'm exaggerating, or overdramatizing, and I am a little bit. But it all makes sense now. I would understand, if a tribe of Gardenia-worshipping cultists were found on some previously unknown island in the South Pacific. Also Billie Holiday3 makes more sense.
I'm never going to try to grow one myself. There are just too many things that could go wrong. I accept that not all of the plants I have are going to survive and grow well for a long time, but I don't have anything like the conditions a Gardenia would want, and there's no point in putting us both through the anguish. Fortunately, the one at work is priced at like $120,4 so I expect I can enjoy it for at least a little while longer. And maybe someday. When I have a gigantic, state-of-the-art greenhouse. Maybe then.
I'd Turn Back If I Were You! -- cropped picture from "The Wizard of Oz," I forget where I found this particular picture, but I'm pretty sure TWOO is old enough to be public domain by now.
The rest -- me.
1 Surprising but true. Though you apparently have to get quite a few of them together at once for the scent to be very noticeable, because I had never detected any scent until we got a bunch of plants in that were all blooming heavily at once. It's not the most interesting smell, but it's not unpleasant.
2 Oh my gaaaawwd! Somebody paaaaaaaalinate me already! [I have no particular beef with Fran Drescher, by the way. She seems like a nice lady in real life.]
3 (Who somewhat famously preferred the gardenia over other flowers, and liked to perform with one in her hair.)
4 It's a 6- or 7-foot standard -- i.e., a plant that's been shaped into a ball of foliage on top of a length of bare stem -- so this isn't completely ridiculous. Though I'm sure you could get the same thing for less in some parts of the country. I didn't get a picture of the entire plant because that's a difficult photograph to get, given the size of the plant and where it's located and everything.