Unlike imported-from-Asia camellias, which over time melded organically into the South Carolina landscape, yellow jessamine has forever been a true native Southerner. The plant’s small but bright yellow tubular flowers have graced the state’s properties, woods, roadsides, and gardens for centuries, and in 1924, it became South Carolina’s official flower.
Yellow jessamine goes by other names: jasmine, Carolina jasmine, poor man’s rope, and evening trumpet flower. Officially yellow jessamine is of the genus Gelsemium (trumpet flower), and it is prolific not only in South Carolina but also as far north as Virginia, southward to Florida, and westward to Texas.
The S.C. General Assembly chose yellow jessamine as its official state flower primarily because it is a native South Carolina plant. A historically documented statement further explains, “[Jessamine] is indigenous to every nook and corner of the State; it is the first premonitor of coming spring; its fragrance greets us first in the woodland and its delicate flower suggests the pureness of gold; its perpetual return out of the dead winter suggests the lesson of constancy in, loyalty to, and patriotism in the service of the State.”
South Carolina pays tribute to yellow jessamine on the state quarter, which also features the state bird, the Carolina wren, and state flag symbol of the palmetto tree.
The prolific plant is both ground cover and a climber. Thus, many antebellum home porch railings expressed the beautifully scented, cheery yellow blooms during the cooler months of December to March. But yellow jessamine continues to grace new and historic homes alike, beautifully adorning trees, railings, fences, and trellises.
Yet yellow jessamine’s beauty and sweet fragrance are deceptive — it is poisonous. Clemson Cooperative Extension warns, “The sap may cause skin irritation in sensitive individuals.” In fact, no one should mistake the yellow jessamine for the harmless honeysuckle. The upside to the plant’s toxic nature is that it keeps insects, diseases, deer, and rabbits away. Butterflies, however, can safely extract the nectar, and yellow jessamine essential oils are used in the perfume industry as the pleasant odor is nearly impossible to reproduce synthetically.
CCE sites a few different cultivars of yellow jessamine, including: ‘Pride of Augusta,’ double-flowered with a look resembling miniature roses; ‘Margarita,’ slightly larger, prominent blooms; ‘Pale Yellow,’ also listed as ‘Woodlander’s Pale Yellow’ or ‘Woodlander’s Light Yellow’ with flowers that are creamy-yellow and larger; Butterscotch, flowers two to three weeks later and repeat blooms in the fall; and, Lemon Drop, shrub-like with softer yellow flowers.
Individuals interested in growing yellow jessamine can expect a moderate growth rate once it has been exposed to quality soil, plenty of water, and partial shade to full sunshine. It grows to 20 feet or more when grown as a vine, or it can be maintained to 3 feet or less with an annual after-flowering trimming in late spring. It is semi-evergreen, which is a botanical term referring to plants that lose their foliage for a short period when old leaves fall off and new foliage growth is starting.
CCE planting instructions are:
1) Plant from containers during cool fall weather.
2) Space plants 3 feet apart as a ground cover and 4 to 8 feet apart for fence or trellis climbers.
3) Fertilize while the plant is actively growing with moderate amounts of a slow-release, balanced fertilizer, such as a 12-6-6.
4) Do not overfeed, since excessive fertilizer can reduce flowering.
Much like South Carolina’s flag symbol of the palmetto tree, yellow jessamine has become so synonymous with the state that Southern literary fiction authors cannot help but wax poetic about the flower when writing sense of place imagery. South Carolina native Caitlin Rush in Curses Beneath Her Feet writes, “A breeze blew softly, slightly rippling the water as it carried the heady scents of late Carolina springtime through the air. Honeysuckle. Jasmine. Ripe, pungent river mud. Ah, the world felt right.”