By Betsy Washington, Northern Neck Native Plant Society Chapter
Carolina or Yellow Jessamine, Gelsemium sempervirens, is a stunning evergreen vine native to the southern United States and Mexico south to Guatemala. In Virginia, Carolina Jessamine is a coastal beauty, common along the southern and central Coastal Plain north to the counties of Lancaster and the Eastern Shore’s Northampton, but is rare in the adjacent outer Piedmont. This twining vine is often seen along our roadsides in late March and April in low woods and thickets festooning loblolly trees or scrambling over shrubs or fences.
It grows naturally in low flatwoods, swamps, thickets, and maritime forests along the coast. No matter where it grows, it always lights up the late winter-early spring landscape with its profuse bright yellow flowers. It is especially beautiful draped through the branches of flowering Redbuds with their magenta blooms or dogwoods. Stop and get up close and you may notice the sweet fragrance wafting from the flowers.
Yellow Jessamine is certainly one of the most beautiful vines we have in the South and has the advantage of offering winter interest with its fine-textured evergreen leaves and profusion of daffodil-yellow blooms — right when we long for them most, near winter’s end and into spring. Carolina Jessamine has dark lustrous green lance-shaped leaves that are only about 1” – 3” long and less than 1” wide, arranged opposite each other along thin, wiry stems. The vines grow moderately quickly to 12’ – 20’ in height and the fine textured foliage and thin stems make it perfect for growing on a small arbor or fence. It can even be grown as a groundcover on a bank with an annual cut-back to below 3’ right after bloom, although the stems may mound up and twine around each other. From March to May, sweetly scented bright yellow trumpet-shaped flowers appear in the axils of the leaves either as a solitary flower or in clusters of two or three and continue to bloom for weeks. The funnel shaped flowers open into five shallowly rounded lobes and are about 1.5” long by 1” wide. If you are lucky, it may bloom again lightly in the fall. The flowers are followed by a persistent 1” long flattened capsule that splits open to disperse its seeds.
This adaptable vine is easy to grow in a variety of soils from sandy to heavy clay and acidic to slightly alkaline but grows best in moist rich soil amended with organic matter. It flowers profusely in full sun but tolerates part-shade, where blooming may be reduced. Carolina Jessamine tolerates wind, occasional flooding and short droughts once established and has the added bonus of being moderately salt tolerant. The evergreen foliage often turns bronze or purplish during winter but recovers quickly. It needs only a light pruning to shape or train the vine to a support best done right after blooming before new buds form. Hardy in zones 6 – 9, this southern vine is a sure antidote to the winter blues. The evergreen foliage provides winter interest and makes an excellent screen on a trellis or fence.
Wherever you choose to grow this charming vine — a small arbor, trellis, mailbox, or along a fence — the softly draping vines cascade softly down showcasing the rich yellow blooms. It certainly adds beauty, grace and fragrance to any landscape.
Be aware, however, that no matter how lovely, all parts of the plant are poisonous. Carolina Jessamine is the state flower of South Carolina, even featured on the South Carolina state quarter. And remarkably, the Carolina Algonquians used nearly every part of the plant to treat malaria and various “fevers.” They even used it as a “weapon,” making a fragrant tea for enemies who would suffer nearly instant paralysis when consumed.
Carolina Jessamine attracts hummingbirds, butterflies and a variety of bees and pollinators to its sweetly scented flowers. Songbirds and small mammals feed on its seeds adding to its wildlife value. You may want to include this lovely vine as a backdrop to a pollinator or butterfly garden or to add a vertical element to a perennial garden trained up a trellis or over an arbor. Invite this spring beauty into your garden and be charmed by its adaptability and easy-going nature and create a long-lasting spring spectacle!
All photos by Betsy Washington.
Carolina Jessamine was the Northern Neck Native Plant Society April 2023 Plant of the Month.