Yellow Jessamine Lights up the Spring
Many reasons explain why yellow jessamine (Gelsemium sempervirens) is a good choice for South Carolina's state flower. It is indigenous to the state, and its delightful fragrance permeates woods and gardens as the vine festoons the canopy of the early spring landscape with its bright yellow flowers. In 1906 Mrs. Teresa Strickland of South Carolina summed it up in her poem, "Legend of the Yellow Jessamine."
Wherever there grows the sheltering pine
Is clinging a Yellow Jessamine vine.
No wonder yellow jessamine (Gelsemium sempervirens) is such a beloved vine. Growing to 20 feet or more tall, it covers fences and trees in open woodlands and along roadsides from Virginia to Florida and west to Arkansas and east Texas. A drive through the countryside in February will reveal not only mile upon mile of woodlands adorned with this "February gold," but also arbors and fences in home landscapes with golden yellow flowers cascading from them.
Clusters of 1- to 1½-inch long trumpet-shaped yellow flowers cover the vines. Fine-textured, glossy, bright green leaves 1 to 3 inches long are held opposite one another on reddish-brown stems. In colder areas, yellow jessamine may be semi-evergreen, and in winter bronze to purplish colored leaves mark their spot in woodlands and gardens.
Yellow jessamine is easy to grow. It will not overwhelm an arbor or other structure with rampant growth. It is easy to keep in scale, attractive in containers, and excellent as a groundcover on steep banks where it us useful for controlling erosion. For best effect, give it a place in as much sun as you can manage and rich, well-drained soil. While this is ideal, the adaptable plants will grow well in any place approximating these conditions. Plants tend to stay more compact in full sun and grow to the top of whatever structure is available and cascade down the sides. On a tree trunk they grow ever upward in search of the sun.
For a groundcover, place the plants about three feet apart. Spacing on a trellis or other structure should be eight to ten feet apart. Moderate amounts of balanced fertilizer will keep the plants growing well. However, excessive fertilizer will cause the vines to grow vigorously at the expense of flowers. Prune after flowering back to a few feet above ground level if needed. Older plants may become top heavy or sparse and can be rejuvenated by a severe pruning. Mow groundcovers every two or three years after flowering to keep them dense.
A selected cultivar, ‘Pride of Augusta' or ‘Plena' offers attractive double flowers. A related species is the swamp jessamine (Gelsemium rankanii). Although attractive in the woods in both spring and fall, the flowers of this species are not fragrant.
Be aware that all parts of this plant are poisonous. Do not allow children to suck nectar from the flowers, and wear protective clothing when working around it as the sap may cause skin irritation. Do not allow yellow jessamine to grow where livestock are present.
At a Glance
Scientific name: Gelsemium sempervirens
Family: Loganiaceae (pinkroot family)
Common names: Carolina jessamine, yellow jessamine, Carolina jasmine
Flowers: Bright yellow, fragrant, trumpet-shaped, born in axillary clusters in late winter or early spring
Size: 10 to 20 feet tall
Exposure: Full sun to part shade
Soil: Moist but well drained; tolerates drought
Hardiness: USDA Zones 7-9
"Carolina in the Morning," a song written by Gus Kahn and Walter Donaldson and published in 1922, extols the merits of Carolina jessamine. We know it is yellow jessamine being immortalized in this song even though "the little buttercups" are referred to as morning glories. After all, Kahn and Donaldson were not horticulturists, but the fragrance and beauty of the flowers captured their imagination. Their song has been sung by many popular artists, and almost any southerner can hum the melody.
Nothing could be finer than to be in Carolina in the morning,
No one could be sweeter than my sweetie when I meet her in the morning.
Where the morning glories
Twine around the door,
Whispering pretty stories
I long to hear once more.
Strolling with my girlie where the dew is pearly early in the morning,
Butterflies all flutter up and kiss each little buttercup at dawning,
If I had Aladdin's lamp for only a day,
I'd make a wish and here's what I'd say:
Nothing could be finer than to be in Carolina in the morning.