by Audrey Stallsmith
Earth seems asleep still, but she's only feigning;
Deep in her bosom thrills a sweet unrest.
Look where the jasmine lavishly is raining
Jove's golden shower into Danae's breast!
"Spring in the South" by Henry van Dyke
The above quote seems a little strange to us who associate jasmine with the South’s hot summers rather than the onset of spring. But jasminum nudiflorum, AKA winter jasmine, grows as far north as zone 6 and actually begins to bloom in late winter on bare stems. That’s why it’s also known as “naked” or “hardy” jasmine.
Unfortunately, nudiflorum lacks that characteristic for which its family is most famous: scent. But here--where the only late winter bloomers, snowdrops, are as pale as the powdery stuff for which they’re named--nudiflorum’s sunnier flowers would probably light things up considerably. So I just may give it a try.
In The Fragrant Path, Louise Beebe Wilder notes that jasminum humile “will live out of doors in Maryland and furnishes its bright yellow, deliciously scented stars in the late summer and autumn. . .and is probably the hardiest fragrant jasmine.” With the exception of a few yellows like the two previously mentioned, most of the hundred or so species of jasmine are as white as the snowdrops.
One story holds that the flowers were originally pink, but folded their petals on the night of Christ’s Crucifixion and refused to show color again. Some of them, like grandiflorum, do have a slight reddish cast on the underside of the petals—perhaps all that remains of the pink!
Their name derives from the Persian yasmin, just as jasminum officinalis derives from Persia and India. The grandiflorum (Spanish jasmine) pictured here is a native of the Himalayas and quite similar to officinalis, but stockier and with larger flowers.
Jasminum sambac (Arabian jasmine), known as pikake in Hawaii, is one of the most popular members of the clan and can bloom virtually year-round in warmer climates. Sambac is frequently used for the flavoring of jasmine tea. It--acccording to Wilder—“brings to the tea hour, with its delicate fragrance and flavor, a vague sense of the romance and the mystery of the East.”
My Grand Duke of Tuscany plant (sambac flore-pleno, AKA moss rose jasmine) is a cultivar with double flowers. The Duke for whom it was named was reportedly so proud of the plant that he forbade his gardener to share cuttings of it. But the gardener was in love and gave his fiance a single sprig of the flower in a bouquet. And she, canny lass, “struck” a cutting. Multiplied over and over, that one bloom eventually made them rich.
That wasn’t the only time that jasmine has been associated with lovers. In George Eliot’s Mill on the Floss, “Little Lucy felt very proud and happy. She and Stephen were in that stage of courtship which makes the most exquisite moment of youth, the freshest blossom-time of passion - when each is sure of the other's love, but no formal declaration has been made and all is mutual divination, exalting the most trivial word, the lightest gesture, into thrills delicate and delicious as wafted jasmine scent. The explicitness of an engagement wears off this finest edge of susceptibility: it is jasmine gathered and presented in a large bouquet.”
Most strong scents are, in fact, best caught in “delicate thrills” rather than in “large bouquets.” The ancients believed that fragrant flowers had a warming quality, but could be too much for some constitutions. Gerard writes in his 1597 Herball that jasmine “wasteth away raw humors, and is good against cold rheums; but in those that are of a hot constitution it causeth head-ache, and the overmuch smell thereof maketh the nose to bleed.”
Wilder writes that “the Hindoos gave the Jasmine the poetic name of Moonlight of the Grove and the flowers of all kinds are said to exhale a richer fragrance at night.” Sir. Thomas Moore comments on that fact in "Lalla Rookh:" “Twas midnight—through the lattice wreathed/ With woodbine, many a perfume breathed/ From plants that wake when others sleep/ From timid jasmine buds, that keep/ Their odours to themselves all day,/ But, when the sunlight dies away,/Let their delicious secret out.”
Those moonlight charms have caused many poets to make much of the plant, including George Meredith in "Love in the Valley:" “Peering at her chamber the white crowns the red rose,/ Jasmine winds the porch with stars two and three./ Parted is the window; she sleeps; the starry jasmine/Breathes a falling breath that carries thoughts of me.” This female should thank her "lucky stars" that a dream about jasmine supposedly presages good fortune and an early marriage.
Although a climber, jasmine is—as Gerard notes—“of the number of those plants which have need to be supported or propped up, and yet notwithstanding of it selfe claspeth not or windeth his stalkes about such things as stand neere unto it, but onely leaneth and lieth upon those things that are prepared to sustain it. . .” In other words, if you want it to “wreathe your lattice” or “wind your porch”, you’ll need to tie it up!
Those of us who live in colder climates than jasmine will tolerate might want to try annual nicotiana instead. Flowering tobacco also has starry flowers and its night-time scent is quite jasmine-like. Plant it in front of your porch and, on hot July evenings, you might almost delude yourself that you too are a southern belle or Arabian princess!
Plant plate is from Afbeeldingen Van Zeldzaame Gewassen, Volume I, courtesy of the Missouri Botanical Garden Library.