Sandy’s Garden ... Gardenia

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At one time, surnames, or family names if you like, were descriptive of the trade or occupation of the person on whom they were bestowed.

The Welsh still carry on this custom to the present day to a limited extent, usually as a short-term means of distinguishing one person from another of the same Christian name … forename, if you like … with whom the speaker is also acquainted. Thus one might use ‘Dai Bread’ to differentiate between him and ‘Dai Beef’ when one is talking of them in a purely local way, very possibly being the only person to make this particular differentiation. However, in bygone times, ‘David Baker’ and ‘David Butcher’ were names which passed from purely local currency into widespread use; and, of course, such surnames are now very common, especially Smiths, Millers, Taylors, Fishers, Wrights and so on, such family names very seldom describing the trade carried on by the person concerned nowadays.

Every so often, however, a person with a particular surname opts to earn a living in an aptly-named trade or profession. Thus Dr. Alexander Garden, a Scottish physician and botanist who was born in 1730 and died in 1791, having spent most of his 61 years on this earth in South Carolina in what we know as the United States of America. The good botanist Dr. Garden had a plant named after him … Gardenia … a tender, evergreen shrub whose full name is Gardenia augusta, ‘the stately (augusta) shrub named in honour of Dr. Garden.’ And its botanical name is also its common name, for gardenia lacks any homely title like ‘dead men’s toes’, ‘widow’s weeds’ or ‘ducksbill.’

Our Victorian ancestors were fond of growing gardenias in their parlours, although they have fallen out of favour in more recent times. And I think I know the reason why. Despite their attractively glossy foliage and pretty, prominent double or semi-double white flowers with a wonderful scent of jasmine, gardenias present their owners with a variety of problems. As befits a shrub which comes originally from warm, damp climes in China and, to a lesser extent, in Africa, gardenias are tender shrubs which will only thrive in the United Kingdom as house plants. During the winter months, they demand a temperature of between 15°C and 20°C… say, between 60°F and 70°F … in bright light; and these conditions are not too easy to meet during a Scottish winter. To complicate matters further, they want a humid atmosphere with their leaves being misted frequently. And, as if this were not demanding enough, if the plant is to form flower buds it will need to live in a temperature which is always above 20°C, even during the coldest hours of a night of hard frost. There are not many people with homes which are always hot and humid, 24 hours a day!

Should it so happen that you can meet these demands … and I don’t think that I have mentioned that it needs to be watered frequently with soft, tepid water, or that it dislikes being exposed to the midday sun during the summer … the gardenia will reward you with a year-round display of laurel-like leaves, adding well-proportioned white flowers with a wonderful, musky, jasmine scent in the autumn. But even then, it will flower less with each passing year despite all the attention lavished on it; and after five years or so it really will need to be replaced with either a new specimen bought from a garden centre or with a member of its own progeny, lovingly brought on from stem cuttings taken in the spring. So, despite the persistence which our Victorian ancestors must have shown in their desire to have one or more of these attractive plants in their homes, I think I shall decline to follow their example; and I shall not try to adapt my home to meet the gardenia’s exacting requirements.

Sandy Simpson, Polmont Horticultural Society