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Gardenia; flower of love and romance
A Valentine plant that keeps on giving
Anna May Kinney

Have you noticed how red roses and Valentine's Day seem to go together? Every February 14, millions of long stem roses are sent to sweethearts, mothers, sisters, daughters and friends around the world. With modern air delivery, roses can arrive fresh on most anyone's doorstep, creating an unbelievable demand for long stem roses, with an increasing price tag to match.

In my grandmother's day, women looked forward to the delicate beauty, sweet fragrance and creamy-white petals of the gardenia. Gardenias from time immemorial have been synonymous with love and romance and in 1937, when Rod McLellan invented the gardenia corsage; this delightful flower's popularity soared.

Sad to say, few young women in the 21st century will enjoy the pleasure of wearing a gardenia (or any other) corsage, today corsages are rarely seen outside of weddings. But this is no reason to abandon a flower with the kind of romantic history that the gardenia has.

Gardenias originated in Eastern Asia in the western parts of China, Japan and Taiwan. Believed to have been named after Alexander Garden, a physician in Charleston, South Carolina, during colonial days who was a correspondent of the great Swedish botanist Linnaeus. In nature, they grow in humus and leaf litter accumulated under trees.

Though they are not the easiest of shrubs to grow, their exquisite creamy white, fragrant flowers makes up for the extra attention required. Over the last hundred years, gardenias have become one of the most popular shrubs in South Carolina.

Here in the North Country, the only gardenias we see are sold as houseplants. Once you have witnessed the gardenia's dark, shiny, green foliage covered with creamy white blooms and smelled it heavenly scent throughout your home, you will never want to be without one of these beautiful plants.

Gardenias are known as one of the most finicky houseplants, this just may be one of the reasons you don't see as many of them given as gifts as they did in our grandmother's day. Workingwomen do not seem to have the time they use to have to tend after fussy plants, but with a little organization, and a list of instructions, anyone can find time to keep this attractive plant healthy.

Even though you must cater to their every need, and keeping them inside year round does create a vast amount of new challenges, gardenia plants are a great, romantic alternative to buying a dozen roses that will be dead in a couple of weeks. Just remember that the plant tag on your new plant only provides a general description of a plant's needs for sun and water and is not sufficient for a fussy plant like a gardenia.

First of all, gardenias need lots of light, a southern exposure is best, but if the sun does not come out, like it often does during our long, cloudy winters, you will have to invest in a grow light. (These are special bulbs that mimic the sun's rays.) The best way to handle this is to purchase a wall timer set to have your light on for 12 hours and off for the next 12 hours.

Unless you have pure spring water, you should purchase distilled water or collect rainwater for your gardenia plant, chlorine, water softeners and hard water can be very destructive. Water should always be kept at room temperature to avoid shocking sensitive plants. Gardenias are especially temperature sensitive and watering them with hard or cold water will result in their leaves turning yellow.

Whatever you do be extremely careful not to over water these plants, while they can tolerate short periods of being a bit dry, they can not survive being to wet, but the soil of gardenias should be kept moderately moist for them to flourish.

Thriving in an acid soil with a pH between 5 and 6, you can keep these acid loving plants happy by either using a high acid fertilizer or placing a used tea bag in one water bottle and occasionally giving them a sip of this weak tea.

Temperature sensitive, gardenias do best when they are kept at a constant 65 degrees. Keeping them near a cold window in the winter is not a good idea, having cold feet will quickly cause their leaves to turn yellow, and too much variations in temperature will result in a loss of buds.

During our long winters, humidity in our overly heated homes can quickly drop to 10 percent. When the humidity on a desert ranges around 30 percent, it's easy to can see how unhealthy our homes can become for both man and plant. Most plants need a range of 50 to 60 percent humidity and as the air dries, many plants start looking bad, especially gardenias and when they are in bud they need even more humidity.

You can increase the humidity around a plant by resting it's pot on a shallow dish filled with pebbles or marbles, then fill the dish two-thirds full of water. Always keeping the water line below the top of the pebbles so that the bottom of the pot does not come in contact with the water. As the water evaporates, it will increase the humidity in the air around the plant.

During flowering times, to prevent the loss of buds, you can temporarily increase humidity by misting your gardenia a few times each day. Cold drafts, improper watering, excessive fertilization or too many consecutive dark cloudy days can result in loss of leaves.

From March through August your gardenia will need a balanced plant food once a week, and from September to March, once a month. For best results, plants should only be repotted in late winter or early spring.