It’s quite an honor to have a plant named after you. It’s an even bigger honor when that plant sports a flower with the most intoxicating fragrance in the world. The gardenia’s path to becoming a Southern favorite doesn’t start here. Like many of our best-loved plants, Charleston was the gateway to the region, where the plant quickly gained popularity. Here’s the story about the gardenia’s name and how it arrived in Charleston.
How Gardenia Got Its Name
Dr. Alexander Garden, a Scottish physician and naturalist, moved to Charleston in 1752. He traded native American plants and corresponded with English merchant John Ellis, who just happened to be a good friend of Carolus Linnaeus, the famous Swedish botanist. Linnaeus had developed the genus-and-species system for scientifically naming and classifying plants.
In 1758, Ellis visited a garden outside London to inspect an evergreen shrub thought to be a jasmine and blessed with powerfully scented double white flowers. Ellis doubted it was a true jasmine, and Linnaeus agreed. Ellis convinced Linnaeus to name the new find for his pen pal in Charleston, Alexander Garden. Enter the gardenia (Gardenia jasminoides). Fittingly, in 1762, the New World’s first gardenia was planted in Dr. Garden’s garden.
How Gardenias Came to Charleston
Before gardenias arrived in Europe and got their official name, they were growing in China, Japan, and Korea. Traders introduced them to the Cape of Good Hope in southern Africa where they were called “Cape jasmine” and to Europe, where they didn’t thrive in the colder climate. The gardenia eventually made its way to the South when Ellis gifted the plant to Garden. The fragrant plant was a hit. Today gardenias bloom throughout the South, from Virginia to Florida.
A swirl of blinding white, the gardenia’s waxy blossom is at once pure and sensual. So intoxicating is its sweetness that raising a bloom to your nose invites you to swoon. Intolerant of Northern winters, the gardenia saves its charms for the South―for prom girls» corsages; blooms floating in birdbaths; and heaven-scented, lazy evenings spent chatting on the porch.
When planting gardenias, give them moist, well-drained soil that’s rich and acidic. They like full sun or afternoon shade. Keep the soil moist and don’t let it dry completely between waterings. Don’t put them too close to other plants because they don’t like to compete for water. You can plant them in containers and raised beds.
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