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I’m a big fan of gardenias. The plant requires little attention, and the white flowers with their heady fragrance are pure joy. Less joyful are the tiny thrips that feast on the flowers. There are various cures for this. I put the blossoms in soapy water for a bit, and then rinse them off before placing the flowers around the house.

Gardenia Lore

gardenia bush

Gardenia plants are part of the Rubiaceae family, which also includes coffee plants. They love tropical and subtropical climates and are plentiful in Asia, Africa, Madagascar, and Pacific Islands. Their scent is described as intoxicating with piquant and earthy mushroom nuances. 

Gardenias can reach a height of three to eight feet, and can be as wide as they are tall, depending on the particular cultivar. There are over 200 varieties of gardenias.

In ancient lore, gardenias were sacred to Morpheus, the Greek god of dreams. The Greeks thought one whiff of a gardenia could transport a person to the Elysium fields of paradise.

Botanical drawing of a gardenia

Victorians had a different perspective on gardenias. They though white gardenias symbolized a promising new friendship, or then again, gardenias could represent a secret love between two people.

My favorite story is how the gardenia received its name. Dr. Alexander Garden was a Scottish naturalist who moved to Charleston, South Carolina where a distant relative was a church minister. Garden’s favorite occupation was collecting specimens of plants and animals which he sent to Carl Linnaeus in Sweden and John Ellis in London. The three men delighted in introducing new species, and Linnaeus developed a classification system.

Ellis thought Garden’s contributions merited having a plant named after him. Linnaeus was less enthusiastic about the idea. Eventually, Ellis persuaded Linnaeus to use gardenia as the scientific name for Cape Jasmin [gardenia jasminoides], a plant sourced in Japan and China. Garden himself probably never encountered a gardenia.

Gardenias & the Floral Industry

In 1926 Rod McLellan started a floral nursery in the San Francisco area, and by 1935 his company was the leading grower of gardenias, with 80,000 plants.

During and after World War II, gardenia corsages became popular. By 1945 McLellan shipped 3 million gardenias a year to florists throughout the country to be made into corsages to compliment gowns for high school proms and as all or part of bridal bouquets. 

My Sweet Gardenia Lei

Fragrant flowers naturally lend themselves to romantic images of a moonlit night on a tropical beach. Danny Kuaana and Bernie Kaai capture the feeling in My Sweet Gardenia Lei (1949).

Jungle Gardenia: The World’s Most Exotic Perfume

In 1932 an American firm called Tuvache introduced Jungle Gardenia. One writer described the scent as a combination of wet gardenia and sweet tuberose. The fragrance blended gardenia, jasmine, and lily-of-the-valley to produce a strong scent.

American Bernadine Angus, founder of Tuvache, didn’t object when newspapers reported her company was French. That’s precisely why she chose a French name at a time when French companies dominated the perfume industry. In 1989 Coty purchased Tuvache and decided to stop producing Jungle Gardenia, so they could repurpose the bottles for another perfume. Coty no longer owns Jungle Gardenia. Today several manufacturers produce a perfume called Jungle Gardenia, though ingredients differ.

Warning: In close quarters, flowers with a strong scent, like gardenias, can cause headaches, nausea, and/or other allergic reactions.


Bookplate for Gardenia jasminoides.

Photos by Author.

Jungle Gardenia. My Fabulous Fragrance.

Meaning Behind the Gardenia. Verdissimo.

Stories of Gardenia. Per Fumus.

Heather Williams. “7 Flowering Plants That Might be Aggravating Your Allergies. All Women’s Talk.

Author Sandra Wagner Wright

Sandra Wagner-Wright holds the doctoral degree in history and taught women’s and global history at the University of Hawai`i. Sandra travels for her research, most recently to Salem, Massachusetts, the setting of her new Salem Stories series. She also enjoys traveling for new experiences. Recent trips include Antarctica and a river cruise on the Rhine from Amsterdam to Basel.

 Sandra particularly likes writing about strong women who make a difference. She lives in Hilo, Hawai`i with her family and writes a blog relating to history, travel, and the idiosyncrasies of life.

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