Gardenias, Glory, and Disaster

Wednesday, June 13, 2012
The first gardenias I knew were called cape jasmines and that is still the common name given to the largest varieties. The flowers are iconic in shape and aroma, and the shrubs are often more than 5 feet tall and wide. There was a hedge outside my childhood home that pulled that fragrance into my room every time the attic fan roared overhead to suck it through the open window. As little girls, we brought flowers indoors at the beach house in Gulfport and later pinned them in our hair ala the movie stars and singers. My friend, Walter Reeves, the Georgia Gardener, divides gardenias into three categories by height. He says the tall (4 – 6 feet) robust shrubs you see blooming their hearts out in June are probably ‘August Beauty’. Since it is such a vigorous grower and because gardenias bloom on new wood, ‘August Beauty’ is sometimes described as “everblooming”. While that is a bit of a stretch, there are months of flowers every year on these big beauties – if they can get comfortable, which apparently they cannot in my garden. We all know that gardenias can be damaged by winter cold, especially if it happens suddenly following mild weather as is usually the case in central Mississippi. Among the least able to tolerate the roller coaster is the dwarf gardenia, or ‘Radicans’. 1-2 feet tall, with small leaves and perfectly double blooms, it is a stunning groundcover when planted en masse and unbeatable falling out of a footed urn pot. When that happens, one is advised to wait until spring to cut out dead branches and shape the rest to stimulate new growth and flowers. Even when all the top growth freezes, the roots may survive. Cut down the sad stuff and fertilize in early spring to stimulate whatever live plant material there may be deep inside the heart of that gardenia. If freezing has been a problem for you, look for the one called ‘Daisy’ and other named, smaller gardenias with better cold hardiness. Their blooms are single in form, as compared to the fat, double flowers of ‘August Beauty’ but they smell as sweet and bloom off and on all summer long. If all is well, you can prune gardenias after the big flower show, which usually happens in June, and get new buds by fall for another show. Or you can prune them in very early spring before new growth gets going, much as you would other evergreens. I’m going to plant ‘August Beauty’ and ‘Radicans’ this time around, and follow my own advice: make sure the soil is well-drained yet rich in organic matter and acid in nature. And pick a spot that gets plenty of morning sun but is protected from late afternoon’s hot rays. It hasn’t been the whiteflies that give me fits nor the sooty mold and I hope that with better choices, I’ll have gardenias to brag about again next year.
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