Monday, December 3, 2007

Messenger of God (Gardenia jasminoides)

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.


Photo credits:

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.


forest said...

When I graduated from college, my sister placed on me a lei that she made from a couple dozen huge gardenia blossoms grown in her yard. The fragrance was intense and blissfully dizzying. That plant was absolutely covered with blossoms every year.

If you like gardenia, grow the orchid Brassavola 'Little Stars.' Much easier, different, but just as rich fragrance (but only at night).

Aiyana said...

The gardenia flower scent is wonderful, but I think many folks associate the scent with gardenia perfume, which is cloying, overpowering and all those other descriptions you mentioned. There really is no comparison. That said, I think orange, lemon and grapefruit blossoms have the gardenia beat by a long shot. (Probably because we don't grow gardenia here and there is an abundance of citrus.)

Anonymous said...

Yep, it's the flowers. I have two large gardenias growing in my garden (plus a number of smaller varieties) - and they are about 8' tall by 10' wide and are both in full bloom. The fragrance stops you in your tracks. There's nothing quite like gardenia season in the south.

Admin said...

OMG. Your blog is the greatest. I suppose I don't need to extol the virtues to you, but it's like an encyclopedia that's actaully fun to read! My mom worked at a huge private nursery when I was growing up. I remember taking deep whiffs of the gardenias, I smelled them for so long that I inhaled all of the fragrance!!!

Jean Campbell said...

New comment to an old post.

I'm so amused you put a '10' on this plant. Every year I root at least one off the old outdoor plant that has been here for 50 years. They're everywhere. I began to plant hedges of them, just because I garden in a favorable climate for gardenias.

Right now there's a tiny cutting in the greenhouse, growing like mad. I think most gardeners love them to death. They don't ask for much, except a little magnesium sulfate.

mr_subjunctive said...

Well sure, they're easy if your climate's doing most of the work for you already. But indoors? Not so much.

Your yard must be unbelievable when they're all flowering. I'm jealous.

Anonymous said...

I bought a bonsai gardenia from the shop where I work as a florist. We actually were not sure of the plant's name at the time, although I later found out from our greenhouse supplier that it was a gardenia.
It did well (indoors!) for awhile, but then all the leaves turned yellow and dropped. I got it to come back to life, but then I re-potted it, (a BIG mistake). All of the leaves dropped again, and the tips shriveled up and its headed for the compost.
I purchased the same bonzai gardenia from our shop as a housewarming gift for my boyfriend-- and his is beautiful and thriving! I'm certain its because he ignores it, while I payed too much attention to mine.

Anonymous said...

WOW. What beautiful photos. I wish I could grow gardenias in my garden. Their scent is amazing.

Ginny Burton said...

When I went to high school in San Antonio in the very early 1960s, there were two huge gardenia bushes in front of the school. Each morning I would steal a flower. I'd carry it all day, eating a petal every so often. Gardenia petals taste exactly like they smell, and you have the added pleasure of that tenderness on your tongue.

antigonum cajan said...

I have two species, both in the north garden. Slowly but sure.

When they were in the west, did not do as well, so far no diseases or insect damages...

I enjoy both, the fragrance and foliage, by our windows...

Nice post..

Tang said...

Totally agree on the depth of the fragrance of the gardenia - balanced and sweet.
I grew up in Malaysia, where we had two huge gardenia bushes at the front of the house. The bushes were perpetually covered in flowers, and every evening we were treated to the fragrance.
I've since tried to grow gardenia in my current garden but they are not doing well. I suspect its the soil.

Helzbeth said...

I have never quite recovered from an experience in Veracruz, Mexico, when I was 11...and my family stayed in a wonderful hacienda where towering gardenias lined the walkways. Every evening they would dump a truckload of gardenias into the swimming pool...and we swam through them in the twilight.

Now I live in Massachusetts, where (needless to say) the climate doesn't favor them. But I did keep one alive for several years here, putting it in the shower (no, not when I was there too) on a regular basis...with lukewarm water, and feeding it a high-nitrogen food. In summer I'd put it outdoors, where it liked the humidity. But it never grew as it would have done in Mexico!

mr_subjunctive said...


I'm going to quibble with these assertions:

The above might sound complicated but it really isn't.

It's a good bit more complicated than the care for, say, a Dracaena fragrans. You're saying that a special soil mix, ongoing adjustment of the pH, bringing in special bugs for insect control, and potentially bringing in special feeders to feed the insects you're bringing in to eat pests (!) is simple?

It is the way nearly every indoor plant should be cared for.

Again, no. Temperatures suitable for a Gardenia are not going to be acceptable to a Homalomena. The watering schedule for a Gardenia will differ from that for a Haworthia. The selection of potting medium is a good deal more restrictive than what you could use for Ficus benjamina or Yucca guatemalensis. The pH-adjustment step would be useless or counterproductive for most cacti. Zamioculcas should never need pest-eating predators brought in for it. Etc. Most indoor plants are going to need something different from what you're describing, in at least one of the particulars.

There might be minor differences in desired pH but gardenias are no more difficult to care for than any other plant.

Here's how I care for my Aglaonemas:

1) Water with dilute fertilizer when dry.
2) Place in a spot that has some light.
3) There is no step 3.

Perhaps you're meaning that Gardenias are not, in fact, actually impossible to grow indoors. I agree. And as far as it goes, I'm thankful for the additional instructions, which will (I hope) be useful to readers. But there's a world of difference between "not impossible" and "no more difficult than any other plant."

mr_subjunctive said...


No, I get that all those things are important. What I think you're not understanding is that your experience growing plants in your home, with your tap water, is different than the experiences of other people. Tap water pH is normally between 6 and 8, though it varies from location to location and sometimes also from season to season. Most people do not need to lower the pH from 10, because most people start from 6 to 8. (I googled and was unable to find anybody even talking about a tap-water pH measuring more than 9; apparently pH above 9 starts to corrode metal pipes, so cities usually adjust the water supply to be lower than that: 8 is apparently ideal, from a pipe-corrosion standpoint.) Suggesting that everybody needs to take steps to solve problems they are not having is . . . well, weird.

(Have you ever considered collecting rainwater or dehumidifier water? Or buying a reverse osmosis filter? Rainwater should be about pH 5.5-6 already, and dehumidifier / RO water should be just under 7. To me, this sounds simpler than adjusting pH with vinegar before watering -- how much vinegar do you go through in a month, by the way? -- though "simpler" depends on what you're used to.)

I never said I grew anything in pure peat, or encourage others to do so. I use Ball Potting Mix (~55% composted bark, 35% peat, 10% perlite, dolomite, and other), not Miracle Gro. I also amend the Ball mix with a Turface-like product (not Turface itself, because I was unable to find it around here) for succulents or rot-prone tropicals; for plants with epiphytic tendencies (Anthurium, Hoya, Aechmea), I mix in some unchopped sphagnum moss as well. For everything else, I use the Ball mix straight from the bag.

It's not really that surprising that once you've adjusted all aspects of your environment to be in line with the requirements of the plants you grow, you find the plants all equally easy to grow. The difficulty rating is supposed to reflect how difficult it is to get these environmental conditions to line up with the needs of the plant. Can a person go to the store, pick out a plant, bring it home, and grow it without having to put in a new window / buy a case of vinegar / set up a humidifier / replace the soil / put it in a terrarium / etc.? By that standard, Gardenias and Philodendrons are not of equivalent difficulty. That's all that the number is supposed to signify.

mr_subjunctive said...


Okay, well. Thanks for stopping by, then.

Anonymous said...

I can see why someone would get depressed after reading several paragraphs of 'you're doing it wrong!'. Pity really, the gritty mix is quite good once you get used to its crazy high water requirements. Sure, it needs a special watering regime, but so does the bagged stuff when you take into account the question of 'is this soil dry enough to safely water yet?'. It really is a matter of what you're used to doing.

Vincent said...

My dad cannot stand these plants because he is allergic to them. Can you imagine THAT? He would walk into the house and immediately demand where the gardenia was and then order you to get rid of it. When I was in high school I received a bouquet of them after being in the school play and had to throw them away because of that. I did not even get to take it with me in the car home.
At the moment I have about 100 seedlings that I grew from cuttings which I planted in seed trays with river silt before transplanting them into planting bags. Once they are bigger I will need to decide if I sell them or keep some as I am toying with the idea of growing some as a hedge. The idea of a whole hedge worth of gardenias in full bloom brings a smile to my face although I suppose that my dad would avoid the place like the plague during flowering time.

Anonymous said...

Hi. I am from Russia originally and I had a heirloom gardenia plant at home with no problem at all. A little different from we can find at nursery now - fewer petals in flowers (but a lot of them), not so heavy smell. Dropped some leaves during winter but tolerated any light conditions and irregular watering. My in-laws still have the plant (it should be more then 10 years old now).