If you’ve never owned a gardenia, you’ve missed out on one of the biggest joys of gardening: fragrance. Not just any old smell but one sweet, heady scent that will make you savor sultry summer evenings like never before.
Yet, as with most plants that bring us joy, the gardenia has its share of problems you need to know about before adding one to your landscape.
Not that this small shrub isn’t worth the pain. Named for Alexander Garden, a Scottish physician and botanist who lived in Charleston, S.C. in the late 1700s, the gardenia is native to China and Japan. Hardy to zone 7, it’s valued not only for its wonderful fragrance but also its elegant long-blooming waxy white flowers and thick glossy evergreen leaves.
The most common species, Gardenia jasminoides, can grow 4 to 6 feet tall and equally wide, though other varieties, such as ‘Radican’, are more low growing and even dwarf. With more than 250 species, there’s a gardenia for every situation – especially patios, walkways and container gardens where their fragrance can be most enjoyed up-close and personal.
Gardenias love moist but well-drained acid soil. First get a soil test from your local Extension Service office to determine your needs, but know that most shrubs will benefit from a feeding in early spring and again mid-summer of acid plant food, fish emulsion, blood meal, bone meal or azalea and camellia food.
The most common pests for gardenias are whiteflies, which are easily treatable with insecticidal soap, but an even larger problem is yellowing leaves, caused by chlorosis typically from an iron deficiency. This can be addressed with your fertilizer.
Also, don’t be alarmed when those milky white flowers turn one yucky shade of brown; it doesn’t mean your shrub is dying – just that its blooms have faded. The plant can be tip pruned just after flowering, but don’t prune the shrub any later than August or you could decrease next year’s blooms by removing buds that are forming.