Columnist on jasmines: Do you really have one in your yard?

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Stephanie Hudak

Stephanie Hudak

By Stephanie Hudak

Are you confused about what is a jasmine? Well, I thought I was clear about it until my son asked me a question about the one growing in his yard. It was purchased as a Confederate ‘Madison’ jasmine – ta da – so it is a jasmine, right? But then there is the Carolina jasmine with its bright yellow flowers – are they from the same family? Nope! In fact, neither of them is actually a true jasmine. This is where those Latin names are so important. Confederate jasmine is Trachelospermum jasminoides; and Carolina jasmine is Gelsemium sempervirens. This is just the tip of that slippery iceberg. There is also Madagascar jasmine (Stephanotis floribunda); and Chilean jasmine, which is Mandevilla laxa. All of these are fragrant, which along with their common name of “jasmine,” gives rise to the confusion.

Of the true jasmines, there are actually some 300 species. And here is another surprise: they are in the olive family (Oleaceae), which makes them relatives of forsythias, lilacs and fragrant tea olives (Osmanthus spp). Most are native to temperate or subtropical areas of the Mediterranean, the Middle East and Asia. Because of where they came from, they cannot generally take frost, although some can. Typical of most of our plants, jasmines were brought to Europe from their tropical locations. Because of its sweet smelling properties (and hardiness to the climate), jasmine officinale was probably so popular in England because it was an antidote to the stench of 16th century London. Jasmines finally made it to America in the 19th century. The vine that Thomas Jefferson grew was most likely Jasmine officinale rather than the “star jasmine” (Trachelospermum) that we know so well.

One of the best scented jasmines is ‘officinale,’ often called “poet’s jasmine” as it is the one most mentioned by poets and romance writers. Native to the Middle East, it is a vigorous, deciduous, twining vine reaching to 40 feet, producing fragrant white flowers from June to October. It is hardy to Zone 7 as long as it is protected from cold winds. Another fragrant jasmine is Jasminum grandiflorum ssp. grandiflorum, which is grown for the perfume trade but it is only hardy to Zone 9. Here in Madison, if you have a greenhouse there are several more varieties of true jasmines that you can grow for their outstanding scents. Most of us don’t have that luxury so we have to stick with the imitators, but they are pretty darn special in their own right. By the way, before I go further, I need to mention another jasmine that causes some confusion to gardeners – winter jasmine (J. nudiflorum – zones 6-9). It is one of the first bloomers in early spring, often mistaken for forsythia; grows on wiry stems that tend to droop and cascade, which makes them perfect for slopes or walls. Winter jasmine has no scent but is a nice bright spot after a long dreary winter. But back to the story….

Our beloved Confederate “jasmine” and its hardier cousin ‘Madison’ should be in everyone’s garden. Let’s clarify where the name “confederate” came from first. This refers to the “confederation of Malay states” where the plant originates. Both are climbing vines that bloom on old wood and produce small, pinwheel-shaped, fragrant, white flowers. But then the differences start. ‘Madison’ is considered to be one zone hardier (7-10 rather than 8-10), and we have our beloved Jane Symmes for bringing this cultivar to the trade – thank you again, Ms. Symmes. Growing to 12 feet, ‘Madison’ is more compact and has slightly larger leaves. Confederate jasmine can grow to 20 feet and tends to need a support. Both have glossy evergreen foliage, but ‘Madison’ has leaves with a fuzzy underside. If you have a keen sense of smell, you will note that ‘Madison’ has an orange-blossom scent, as compared to the more jasmine-like perfume of Confederate, which blooms from mid-April until June, while the ‘Madison’ can continue flowering in flushes for most of the summer.

Once we get one into our yard, how do we care for it? Although somewhat drought-tolerant they will do better if watered at least once a week during dry periods. Fertilize them once a year after they bloom with 5-5-5 organic granular fertilizer around the base of the plant. If you need to curtail its growth, cut the vertical stems immediately after they finish blooming to force them to branch out and allow time to make shoots for the following spring. Remember, these bloom on “old wood.”

We can still keep calling all these plants “jasmines,” just be sure you remember their botanical names too so you know what you are planting and can give them their proper care. If you want to know more about vines and climbers, check out Alan Armitage’s Vines and Climbers – A Gardener’s Guide to the Best Vertical Plants. Great pictures and good basic information. Let your heart be hugged today.

“Gardens are a form of autobiography.” –Sydney Eddison

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