Carolina Jessamine, South Carolina’s State Flower

Jill Staake

Every weekend, the Focus on Natives segment highlights a plant, bird, or butterfly native to the Southeastern U.S.  Know of a particular species you’d like to see featured here? Make your suggestions in the comments section below.

Focus on Natives:
Carolina Jessamine, South Carolina’s State Flower

Carolina Jessamine by Ellis Rowan, 1901

“[Carolina 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 General Assembly, Feb 1, 1924

As I pulled up to the plant nursery the other day, pot after pot of brilliant yellow-flowered vines caught my eye, and when I got out of the car, a sweet intoxicating scent filled the air. Drawn to it like a hummingbird to honeysuckle, I eagerly lifted the plant tag to see what could be so divine on a late winter day in Florida. It was, as I’m sure you’ve guessed, Carolina Jessamine, the official state flower of South Carolina. Here are a few facts:

Who:
Gelsemium sempervirens, AKA Carolina Jessamine, Carolina Yellow Jasmine

What:
An evergreen vine that remains fairly compact when planted in bright sun, and will climb to find sunshine when planted in partial shade. In the wild, it often grows dozens of feet high into the trees, flowering at the top when it finally finds the sun.

Where:
Carolina Jessamine native to coastal areas from the eastern part of Virginia to Florida and west to Texas, and grows well in most parts of zones 7 – 9.  Look for it at native plant nurseries in these regions, or order online from sites like MichiganBulb.com.

When:
Carolina Jessamine is an early spring bloomer throughout its range, so flowering time depends on when spring arrives. The very fragrant yellow flowers can appear as early as February in the far South and as late as April or early May in the far northern reaches of its range.

How:
Though it will tolerate dry soils, Carolina Jessamine flowers best in soil that’s consistently moist but not wet. If you plant it in a drier area, water well throughout the spring to encourage flowering. It’s a vine, so plan to provide some support, and expect it to climb high and far if not in full sun. Some people prefer to keep this vigorous grower in pots to keep it in check. You can also plant it as ground cover along a steep bank, where it will help to hold soil in place as it spreads. Click here to visit Dave’s Garden and learn about other gardener’s experiences with this plant.

A Word of Warning:
While Carolina Jessamine has a lot of things going for it, it may not be right in your own garden. All parts of the plants are extremely toxic. Those with children who could like to put the “pretty yellow flower” in their mouths, or with pets who chew on anything and everything, may want to avoid the possible dangers of this vine. Very small doses can cause paralysis and even death. Additionally, some people have skin sensitivity to the sap of this plant, so wear gloves and long sleeves when handling to avoid the possibility of a rash.

There is also some evidence of this plant being toxic to honeybee populations. According to the USDA handbook Diagnosis of Honeybee Diseases, young worker honeybees and adult field honeybees ingesting large amounts of the nectar from this plant may die, and it’s possible queen bees may be affected. If you raise bees, or live in an area where bees are raised, you may consider avoiding adding this plant to your environment.

In the end, I decided not to buy any Carolina Jessamine the other day, though I really wanted to. I had good reasons for turning away – my gardens are small and places for vines are limited and, currently, already taken. But the vivid yellow flowers and sweet scent have lingered in my memory, and I’m willing to bet that Carolina Jessamine will eventually find a home in my yard, sooner or later.

Do you grow Carolina Jessamine in your own gardens? We’d love to hear your tips and experiences. Drop a line in the comments and tell us all about it!

  1. Noelle says

    Hello Jill,

    I do like this pretty vine. I have seen it growing in the desert southwest as well and it makes a spectacular cover fences. Like you, I do not have any in my garden, but I may have to try to find a spot :-)

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