By Connie Cottingham
Sometimes you meet a plant that has just about everything going for it. Carolina jessamine (Gelsemium semperviruns) is one of those: a native vine that blooms in very early spring, takes shade or sun, dry or wet, is deer resistant, and has shiny, evergreen leaves. If this little guy had a resume, you would hire him on the spot. What do you need done? Climb an arbor? Cover a chain link fence? Screen a view? Bring happy yellow blooms into the late winter garden? Laugh at browsing deer? I personally would not ask him to accent a mailbox – Carolina jessamine wants to grow and doesn’t show much control on a mailbox. Could be scary for the mailman. Can you imagine the mailman trying to put your letters in the mailbox and having to brush aside the plant each time? The mailman may not like it eventually. The plant is just as enthusiastic as a groundcover, but that’s fine if you have a good amount of space that needs to be covered. It’s fun to create a little worker bee personality for this vine, but the personality could have also been quite the lady: an elegant, lightly fragrant, native vine that is the state flower of South Carolina and comfortable in urban or rural, manicured or natural settings.
In February and March, Carolina jessamine comes into full bloom, with clusters of fragrant yellow to gold trumpet-shaped flowers. You may see it climbing trees on a woodland edge or climbing utility poles, gracing a brick wall in front of an historic home, along a highway, or in a back yard. This plant thrives in the South, happiest in Zones 7-9, in moist, well-drained soil in full sun. That said, it will also do well in part shade (although it will have thicker growth and more blooms in full sun), drought, and even wet spells once it is established. Its tendrils and twining stems will help it climb up to twenty feet.
Carolina jessamine blooms with the early daffodils, in February and March. The small evergreen leaves look a little worn by then, but who notices when the yellow flowers command attention? After the blooming is over you can rejuvenate a plant by cutting it back hard (to about three feet) or do some thinning to encourage denser growth. Don’t wait too long because it will be setting buds on the new growth this summer.
There are a few named varieties that offer larger blooms, more compact growth or reblooming in fall. The most familiar of these is ‘Pride of Augusta’ (may also be called ‘Plena’), which is a Georgia Gold Medal winner (www.georgiagoldmedalplants.org) with double blooms that holds its blooms longer.
The State Botanical Garden of Georgia in Athens is part of The University of Georgia and offers display gardens, woodland trails, classes, events, a gift shop, volunteer opportunities, and free parking and admission. Botgarden.uga.edu or 706-542-1244.
Connie Cottingham is a staff member of the State Botanical Garden of Georgia, a freelance garden writer, and a landscape architect. You can subscribe to her weekly Love Notes from the Garden at conniecottingham.com.