On my other blog today I said that a certain ferocious native Texan plant has benign flowers whose scent reminds me of gardenias. Now, gardenia is a word that Spanish and English share, and an English speaker is likely to think that the name comes from the fact that people like to plant this wonderfully fragrant flower in their gardens. But no, it turns out that the Swedish scientist and categorizer Linnaeus created the genus Gardenia to pay tribute to a man whose last name just happened to be Garden. We’re referring to Dr. Alexander Garden, who was born in Scotland in 1730, moved to South Carolina in 1752 to practice medicine, sided with the British during the American Revolution, returned to Britain, and died in London in 1791. We should add that in addition to practicing medicine Dr. Garden was a naturalist, and that’s why a genus of plants includes his name.

As for the English word garden, it comes from Old North French gardin, based on the simpler gart, which had passed into Old French from Frankish, a Germanic language. Where Old North French had gardin, standard French has jardin, and that’s the source of Spanish jardín. Going back even farther, we find that Germanic gart developed from the Indo-European root *gher-, which meant ‘enclosure.’ Another descendant of that root was Old English geard, which has evolved to modern English yard. So plant a gardenia in the garden in your yard and get triple etymological joy and a wonderful scent in return.

© 2013 Steven Schwartzman


6 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. shoreacres
    Jul 20, 2013 @ 15:02:53

    After the fact it doesn’t seem at all surprising that “gardenia” should be related to “garden”, but Mr. Garden was a surprise. Here’s another surprise. The plant also is called Cape Jasmine and the South African variety thrives there alongside my Cape Honeysuckle.

    Here’s another interesting little tidbit, gleaned from the House of Chanel:

    Mademoiselle Chanel liked white flowers, so well-defined, so sensual…and yet her emblem, the Camellia, has no scent. But the Gardenia, which it so closely resembles, fills the air with fragrance. Gabrielle Chanel and Ernest Beaux evoked this flower magnificently [in the 1925 fragrance called ‘Gardenia’] – its green notes, its creamy heart, and a trail full of fantasy “.

    I never would have imagined having something in common with Coco Chanel, but there you have it: a love of white flowers.


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Jul 20, 2013 @ 15:10:21

      I suspect Coco Chanel was as interested in green notes of the monetary sort as in those of the fragrance she called Gardenia.

      Do you have any idea why white flowers appeal to you?


  2. shoreacres
    Jul 21, 2013 @ 22:33:05

    I’ve been pondering this, and I think the answer may be as simple as “childhood”. I grew up surrounded by white flowers: lily of the valley, white peonies, hydrangeas, a terrifically fragrant spirea we called “bridal wreath”, apple blossoms, white violets.

    Of course we had the usual garden flowers – forsythia, hollyhocks, tulips, zinnias and so forth. But spring and early summer was filled with white flowers, and I can remember being convinced that Spring made white flowers from Winter’s snow.

    There might be a children’s story in that.


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Jul 22, 2013 @ 05:52:41

      I think you’ve hit it: spring making white flowers from winter’s snow has the right magic to explain your liking. There are plenty of white wildflowers in Texas, so you moved to a place that can support your fantasy—except that your warm part of the state doesn’t know much about winter.


  3. dianeandjack
    Jul 22, 2013 @ 15:19:05

    Just love the blog! I always learn something!!! Thanks so much!!!


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©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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