The Elusive Gardenia

The striking thing about the gardenia most people would probably say, is its idiosyncratic perfume. It can be a polarizing scent.  Luca Turin called it “…the flower smell that I rate as the most irresistible and impossibly pretty on earth.”

But the garden writer Tovah Martin thought differently: ”The gardenia has never been a favorite among folks who are young at heart, light of foot, and modest of taste.  A gardenia is a heavy burden for any nose to bear.”

Here is what I notice about the gardenia smell: it’s always just disappeared, or dissipated.  The scent’s not present. It’s gone.

When I was a child, it was the custom of the country to part youngsters from their tonsils.  Like everyone else my age, I lost mine at the hospital and when I woke up from the anesthesia, there was a large gardenia plant on the side table in the hospital with several buds on it. But by the time they were ready to open we had gone home and the gardenia took one look at my bedroom and promptly dropped everything.   I just missed the gardenia smell.

Then there was the enormous gardenia my husband’s aunt cultivated in a guest bedroom in Chevy Chase.  Lovely, with a spread four feet in diameter, and an undulating  pattern of gray branches covered in spring with those distinctive shining dark jade leaves and, theoretically, white gardenias. Somehow the plant had always just stopped blooming, or just hadn’t started whenever we visited. When the aunt died, that whole extravaganza of gardeniadom died with her. Too late, too late, I had missed the gardenia perfume once again.

I’ve heard worse stories of people who have been frustrated, even cheated, of their gardenia expectations.   Consider my mother’s friend who grew – with tremendous care – a  Gardenia jasminoides until it set a dozen buds or so; only to find,  one morning when blooming was imminent, that her husband had taken a pair of scissors to the bush and cut every bud off.  Once again a gardenia perfume fest was foiled, and I’d have said, given the infinite fusspottery of gardenia culture indoors, that she had ample grounds for divorce.

It’s easy to smell gardenias incidentally, but you never smell them permanently.  Try strolling around Charleston in the spring, you’ll smell something and whip your head around and say to yourself, “Whoa!  Gardenias?  Where?” and just as you’re about to get a fix on wherever the fragrance is coming from something else will invade the same air space.  Some big honking wisteria say, or even some early lilies, or it could just be good old carbon monoxide, but in any case the chance is gone and the gardenia perfume once again has eluded you.

To cap it all, gardenias don’t, or haven’t in the past, yielded any essential oil. Oh honestly, you begin to feel like Dr. Zhivago thinking he spotted Lara on a Moscow street:  Was she there, you think? Was it just a mirage? Why didn’t I hit the gym more often, you ask yourself?  But there it is.  Part of mortality, it appears, is this business of just failing to connect with things you really want to, like a loved one, or an opportunity, or luck, or, or…the smell of gardenias.


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2 Responses to The Elusive Gardenia

  1. Nina Z says:

    Gardenias are quite common in Southern California where I grew up. Some also grow in Northern California where I live now. The smell was intoxicating, and you had to be careful never to touch the flower petals, as they would instantly turn brown. Typically you float them in a bowl of water. And your photo does not look like a gardenia to me. Ours look like the type that Billie Holliday wore in her hair. Is there a different type where you are?

    • Blacknell Allen says:

      You’re right, the picture is of a Cape Gardenia, and I’ve never come across one even at specialist nurseries, but the picture was so striking that it went up anyway. Most of the gardenias I’ve seen are in fact the double kind. That was certainly the variety that my aunt grew in Chevy Chase, and the sort Billie Holiday wore. Aren’t you lucky to live where they’re common, here it’s just too cold, and they really are fussy about life on the inside.

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