True Jasmines and Jasmine Wannabes

angel wing jasmine (Jasminum nitidum)

angel wing jasmine (Jasminum nitidum)

If you ever visit India, and are invited into someone’s home, you may be honored with a garland made of jasmine flowers, to be worn around your neck.
Just as few gardens in Europe and America are without roses, few gardens in Asia – in Persia, India, Turkey and Arabia – are without jasmine.
Spanish jasmine (jasminum grandiflorum), the vining species from which jasmine perfume is produced, is native to the Himalayas. It is grown commercially in southern France, not far from Nice, where perfume is extracted
from flowers harvested during the hottest summer months. Flowers are picked just after sunrise, since morning dew would diminish their fragrance.
According to “Sunset Western Garden Book,” this same jasmine would grow well anywhere in Los Angeles; it “blooms all summer” and is cold tolerant. Its fragrance – without parallel in the plant world – cannot be reproduced in the laboratory by any combination of chemical ingredients.
So why don’t you see this most mellifluous jasmine in our fair city? Several factors may be involved: Spanish jasmine is briefly deciduous (Angelenos have little patience for plants that lose their leaves); it may not flower every year (mild winters inhibit summer blooming); it requires more water than the average vine; it needs a more well-drained soil than that found in many of our gardens.
There are other jasmines that, not as fragrant as the species used in perfume manufacture, hold their own as ornamental vines and shrubs. Jasminum polyanthum is a winter and spring flowering vine that has white flowers tinged with pink. Jasminum mesnyi – which is blooming at this very moment – is an unforgettable plant with arching, fountainesque shoots studded with popcorn yellow flowers that fade to white; it may be trained up a trellis or grown as a hedge. Italian jasmine (Jasminum humile) forms an 8-foot-high shrub, also with yellow flowers, that blooms in summer and fall. Arabian jasmine (Jasminum sambac) is better suited to a coastal than inland valley climate, and angelwing jasmine (Jasminum nitidum) requires summer heat but needs winter cold protection.
Jasmine belongs to the olive family (Oleaceae), which includes not only the familiar privet (ligustrum), ash (fraxinus) and olive tree, but two other groups of plants notable for their fragrance: the lilacs (syringa), which bloom erratically in subtropical Los Angeles but reliably in Lancaster, and the sweet olives (osmanthus), which require protection from the heat. A large collection of lilacs – which should just be coming into bloom – is on display at the Descanso Gardens. When you go to see them, inquire as to their whereabouts at the Descanso entrance; they are off the main garden paths and easily might be missed.
Synonymous as jasmine has become with fragrant white or yellow flowers, several plants commonly are referred to as jasmines – or jessamines – even though they are botanically unrelated to true jasmines. Carolina jessamine (gelsemium sempervirens) produces sheets of yellow flowers this time of year. Once established, a good soak once a month in summer is all the water it needs. Orange jessamine (murraya paniculata) is a shrub that can bloom at any time, and will do so more often if it is fertilized regularly.
One of the most popular garden plants is star jasmine (trachelospermum jasminoides). A nurseryman once told me that a person could make a nice living growing nothing but this plant, which is propagated from shoot cuttings. Star jasmine primarily is a vine and ground cover, but also can be grown as a shrub and even trained as a standard (small patio tree).
Night blooming jasmine (cestrum nocturnum) grows into an 8-foot (or taller) shrub that has little garden appeal – were it not for the nighttime summer fragrance wafted from its nondescript flowers. Of much greater garden value, in my humble opinion, is cestrum elegans, with its large clusters of wine red tubular blooms.
“Jasminoides” means jasmine-like. Gardenia jasminoides, whose fragrance approximates jasmine’s, has many named varieties, each of them difficult to grow well. The healthiest gardenia I ever saw grew on the east side of a car wash in Van Nuys; morning sun, loamy soil and plentiful misting provided the perfect combination of cultural conditions for its growth. Solanum jasminoides, the white potato vine, climbs like jasmine and flowers year around, even if it has no fragrance.
Tip of the week: February is the month to begin planting your spring garden. In our area, planting well ahead of summer heat – which can arrive as early as April – is critical. Following a rain, just make sure soil is allowed to dry out somewhat before planting; if the soil, after you dig it up, sticks together in a huge chunk on your shovel, it still is too wet to plant.

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