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A Gardenia For Me

I was never a gardenia fan, for two reasons.

First, I was impressed by my mother's sad story of her own mother's funeral. She was six years old and had never seen a dead person. Her mother was in the casket, her small stillborn baby at her side. Gardenias filled the room, their heavy scent mingling with the tears and oppressive heat of that day.

"I can't stand the smell of gardenias," my mother often said. "They make me sick to my stomach."

So I never bought a gardenia, out of respect for my mother.

Second, gardenias have a reputation for dramatically dropping dead without cause. So I wasn't interested in planting a gardenia. There are too many other plants to choose from with better reviews.

Then one day my neighbor Betty gave me a cutting from her own healthy specimen, which grew and bloomed reliably every year. I didn't want to offend her, so I took the cutting and put it in a jar of water, thinking I would do my duty until it died. The plant responded by quickly sprouting roots. Okay. Now I had to plant it. I put it at the sunny edge of the woodland garden, a place my mother was unlikely to visit when she came to my house. I didn't expect much from it, and it would not grieve me when it passed away.

That was less than a decade ago, and now my gardenia is about eight feet tall and wide. It has glossy green leaves and lovely white flowers, and the single shrub fills the woodland with its sweet aroma when it blooms every year. I have decided not to be burdened with my mother's memories, and I look forward to the wonderful olfactory experience each June.

Gardenias are also known by the common name 'Cape Jasmine.' They are as southern as iced tea, screened porches and lightning bugs. They like heat and high humidity and will grow in full sun to partial shade. They shouldn't be planted near the foundation of a house or next to a concrete walk, as lime can leach into the soil and harm these acid-loving plants. Ideally, they should get about one inch of rain each week. Gardenias like well-drained, moist soil, and it's a good idea to put an organic mulch at the base to conserve moisture. I use pine straw, which also helps to acidify the soil. I deadhead my shrub after blooming, because this will encourage more flower production. I also don't like the look of the aging flowers, which turn an ugly brown and cling to the branches.

The key to a happy gardenia is to plant it in the right environment. I think it is hard to create the perfect climate artificially, and this probably accounts for its finicky reputation. A stressed gardenia is prone to disease and poor growth.

Don't think, however, that yellow leaves necessarily mean the plant is sick. Gardenias don't loose their leaves during winter and are considered evergreen. But as spring turns toward summer, up to a third of the old leaves will turn bright yellow before they fall. The yellow leaves of my gardenia are aging leaves, about to fall.If newer leaves, near the end of branches, turn yellow, that is another matter. Yellowing of new leaves may mean an iron deficiency, disease or root problems. Mealy bugs and white flies also sometimes attack gardenias. A horticultural oil or insecticidal soap will take care of them. 

I did not love my gardenia from the beginning, but the little cutting my neighbor gave me has won my heart. I now know why this plant has endeared generations of southerners, and I am happy to have one thriving in my garden.

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Reader Comments (18)

What a nice story, Deb! A bit sad, but nice. I love gardenias, but don't plant them in my garden. I had it as a house plant once, then set it outdoors, and it didn't make it. White flowers in your pictures are so lovely! Now, you have different, happy, thoughts associated with G. - your neighbor, her plant, etc. Who knows, you might want to plant more gardenias in your garden!

June 4, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterTatyana

It was such a shame that gardenias are associated with such a sad time for your mother. Here iit is lilys, a lot of people think of them as a funeral flower and want nothing to do with them.
I love gardenias (probably because they won't grow for me), I find the scent delicious.

That is such a lovely story. I do feel for your mother - isn't it amazing how the tiniest whiff of a scent can conjure whole scenes and complex emotions into our minds. But you are right about choosing your own memories. I don't have any Gardenias, (or lightning bugs or humming birds sadly!) but in my imagination they mean elegant garden parties and inauguration balls..

June 4, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMarian

HI Deb..what a touching story..and interesting story too..wow..they look beautiful! Gorgeous photos! your gardenias look very happy!

And oh my.. I loove your hummingbid photo in the other post..wow...gorgeous!

Hope you are enjoying gardening and all is well! Your space is always so stunning..just brilliantly beautiful! I havent been to blotanical in ages..glad i found your blog again.
have a happy day!

June 5, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterKiki

One of our gardenias was grown my a cutting from a gardenia that grew in my husband's grandparents' yard. My husband's grandfather could never stand the fragrance either, as it reminded him of funeral homes.

When we took a cutting from that gardenia it was over 40 years old and probably a good 8' square. It had died to the ground a couple of times during its lifetime (the last time was probably the 70's) but always came back. I agree, gardenias love the acid soil, heat and humidity of the Southeast and you see them growing everywhere here with little care.

June 5, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSweet Bay


It's no wonder your mother could not abide the fragrance. It must have been very hard for her to lose her mother when she was so young.

June 5, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSweet Bay

Gardenias are such Southern icons. I love them, but of course they are houseplants up here. Your story is lovely, and I especially like the part where this lovely plant convinced you not to carry your mother's burdens. A beautiful insight learned in the garden.

June 5, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterLaurrie

Deb, I love gardenias, but have never tried to plant one here; therefore, I will live vicariously by taking in the beautiful scent from your garden.

June 5, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDiana

I love this story. I had gardenias in my wedding bouquet. I love how you point out that this beautiful shrub does best when planted in the right place and climate. I have clients here in the desert who want to grow them, but I tell them that it will be an uphill struggle because you do have to create an artificial environment.

PS. Thank you very much for your kind comments.

June 5, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterNoelle / azplantlady

Just another of many plants I will have to look into. Nice photos and story.

June 5, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJeff

I thought it was interesting that the smell of gardenias was so evocative for your mother - I have smells which are very evocative for me. Does your mother like your gardenia? Maybe with it growing outside it wont be so evocative for her.

The gardenia does look lovely, I wonder if they will grow outside in the UK

June 5, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterHelen

We look forward to our two Gardenia's blooming each year for their sweet scent in the summer night. Their flowers go inside the house floating in a bowl and the scent goes throughout the house. They are as you say a Southern classic.

June 5, 2010 | Unregistered Commentersanddune

I'm amazed you can grow it so well outside. They are known as hard houseplants to look after. I do like their scent - its so delicious - but to have one 8 feet tall is just fabulous - the air in that part of the garden must be incredible in the evenings.

June 7, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterRosie

I love gardenias. It's interesting how the smell of flowers can bring back memories. My memory of Gardenias is from a childhood friend's garden. They had one blooming just outside the back door.
What a gorgeous shrub to have come from a small cutting.

June 7, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterCatherine

How beautiful -- I've never seen a gardenia plant that large!!! --they aren't hardy here and have to spend the winter indoors-- which isn't a good thing for the ones I've killed.
amazing story about your mother -- how very sad -- I'm sure the scent would bring back memories-- I'm impressed with your decision to move forward.

June 9, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJudy

The beautiful Gardenia really is on of the most gorgeous of all the flowers in the world. I didn't really know this before someone told me, but the blooms on a Gardenia plant last for as long as 1 - 2 months.

They are so pretty and fragrant.

Gardenias are sort of similar to Jasmine. These two flower/plants seem similar, even though they originate in different geographical regions.

December 19, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterNadia Radzyminski

My gardenia is not doing well. It just recently bloomed but looks rather sad now 😣. It is breaking my heart. I really can't think of what I did wrong. HEEE.....LP!!

June 3, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterAlice

well, first of all, great information you gave. So I live in a city near Dubai which the weather is sunny and hot most of the year. I got my gardenia a month ago and planted it outdoors, the problem is the flowers bloom and wither within 3-5 days!! I try not to soak the plant with water so I just water it each morning with a full medium sized mug for fear of it will dry out at noon. I really don't know how to deal with it, the plant is so precious to me and it really frustrates me to see it wither. help me please :(((((

November 18, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterFatima MRE

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