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Issue: May 1, 2004

How can I grow gardenias in New Mexico?

Question:

In December, I purchased a potted gardenia plant. At that time, there were flower buds on the plant. I hoped it would blossom and that I could enjoy the wonderful fragrance. I keep the soil moist at all times. How can I get my plant to flower so I can smell the wonderful fragrance?

Shirley B.

Roswell, NM

Answer:

The first thing I must do is tell you that you have chosen a difficult task. Gardenias need acid soil, constant moisture, and humidity in the air. You have been watering to maintain the moisture, but the tap water and well water in New Mexico make the soil alkaline. Even if you start with an acidic potting soil, you are reducing the acidity each time you water the gardenia. Finally, keeping the air around the plant humid is difficult.

Is it impossible to grow gardenias in New Mexico? No, but it is extremely difficult. You must consider these factors. Water your gardenia with distilled water. Some bottled water is not distilled, so be careful which you choose. Occasionally add soluble fertilizer to the water, but not each time you water. The fertilizer should be one that acidifies. (The label will tell you if it acidifies.) Sulfur in the fertilizer is good in the Southwest. The potting soil must be acidic, and you will probably need to repot much more often than in the case of other plants.

The gardenia can't tolerate outdoor temperatures in most of New Mexico during the winter, but in the summer it will do best if placed outdoors in a location that receives indirect light. Do not put it in direct sunlight. Grouping other plants around it, both indoors and outdoors, will help increase humidity.

If all of this is too much trouble, perhaps you will want to consider a different plant with fragrant flowers. The little-leaf mockorange is a New Mexico native adapted to our soils, climate, and dry air. When it flowers, its perfume is very pleasant. It doesn't smell exactly like a gardenia, but it has a wonderful fragrance without being so difficult to cultivate. The cliff rose is another fragrant flowering shrub that is adapted to New Mexico's conditions (except in the colder parts of the state). It is a relative of the Apache plume but flowers only once each year. The Apache plume lacks fragrance, but the cliff rose has a very pleasant fragrance.

If you are intent on having a gardenia-like fragrance, there are relatives of ginger (Hedychium coronarium or H.flavescens) that smell very much like gardenia to me. They are better adapted to our soil and water than the gardenia. They are not hardy outside in the winter, but they make a good and relatively large houseplant. They can blossom several times each year as a potted plant and can be taken outside during the summer and grown in a shady location. They will need some protection from wind, but they are very tough plants and will continue to grow even if the leaves are frayed by the wind.

The little-leaf mockorange and cliff rose are available at some nurseries in New Mexico, but the Hedychium may be more difficult to find. I have seen it advertised in some national garden catalogs.

Best wishes in your efforts to grow fragrant plants. I also like fragrance in the landscape.

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Send your gardening questions to

Yard and Garden, ATTN: Dr. Curtis Smith

NMSU Cooperative Extension Service

9301 Indian School Road, NE, Suite 112

Albuquerque, NM 87112

Curtis W. Smith, Ph.D., is an Extension Horticulture Specialist with New Mexico State University's Cooperative Extension Service. New Mexico State University is an equal opportunity/affirmative action employer and educator.