I could not think of a better native wildflower to feature in February than Yellow Jessamine, Gelsemium sempervirens . After reading Roger Hammer's sinister portrayal of this "pretty and evil” native, your appreciation for its lovely flower and fragrance will be restored by the poem “Yellow Jessamine” written by Constance Fenimore Woolson in 1874. Thank you to Peg Urban, who brought this poem to my attention when she remembered it from a past issue of the Palmetto.
Gelsemium sempervirens (L.) W.T. Aiton
Gelsemium Family (Gelsemiaceae)
text and photos by Roger Hammer, Dade Chapter
Carolina Jessamine, by Roger Hammer, Dade Chapter
This twining vine has stems to 20' long with light green, lanceolate leaves from 1"–3" long and ½"–¾" wide. The fragrant, trumpet-shaped flowers are about 1½" long and are typically present from January into April. Look for it in deciduous forests south throughout northern and central Florida to Charlotte, Highlands, and Palm Beach Counties. It can climb high into tree canopies and oftentimes the way to find it is to look for flowers on the forest floor. Also, look for it growing on fencerows along roadsides adjacent to its natural habitat.
Gelsemium is a latinized version of gelsomino, the Italian name for jasmine (Oleaceae), created in 1789 by French botanist Antoine Laurent de Jussieu (1748–1836), best known for being the first to publish a natural classification of flowering plants. The genus name reflects the sweet, jasmine-like perfume produced by the flowers of this species. The name sempervirens means “evergreen” or “living forever,” even though it loses its leaves in cold temperate regions. Carolus Linnaeus (1707–1778) first described this species as Bignonia sempervirens in 1753 from plants collected in Virginia in 1696, but was later relegated to the genus Gelsemium in 1811 by English botanist William Townsend Aiton (1766–1849).
There are only 3 members of this genus and 2 occur in Florida (the third species, Gelsemium elegans, is native to Asia). Gelsemium rankinii flowers are similar but are not aromatic, and it occurs mostly in the Florida panhandle (also Hamilton and Nassau Counties). This family was separated from the Bignoniaceae by the absence of stipules and latex, plus the heterostylous flowers and superior ovaries.
Members of this genus are HIGHLY TOXIC and a single flower may be fatal if ingested. The toxin acts much like strychnine by blocking muscle activity, and symptoms are similar to tetanus. The flower nectar is also toxic to bees and honey derived from the flowers has been implicated in human deaths. Medicinal uses are ill-advised but it has been used to treat measles, muscular rheumatism, tonsilitis, and headaches. In Asia, Gelsemium elegans has been used to commit murder and suicide.
Carolina jessamine is sometimes cultivated and can be pruned into a shrub. Be careful not to get the sap on your skin because it can cause a blistering rash on sensitive people. Its global range extends from Virginia to Texas south through Mexico into Central America. It is pretty and pretty evil at the same time.
|Yellow Jessamine and Bee, photo by Peg Urban|
by Constance Fenimore Woolson, (March 5, 1840 – January 24, 1894)
In tangled wreaths, in clustered gleaming stars,
In floating, curling sprays,
The golden flower comes shining through the woods
These February days;
Forth go all hearts, all hands, from out the town,
To bring her gayly in,
This wild, sweet Princess of far Florida –
The yellow jessamine.
The live–oaks smile to see her lovely face
Peep from the thickets; shy,
She hides behind the leaves her golden buds
Till, bolder grown, on high
She curls a tendril, throws a spray, then flings
Herself aloft in glee,
And, bursting into thousand blossoms, swings
In wreaths from tree to tree.
The dwarf–palmetto on his knees adores
This Princess of the air;
The lone pine–barren broods afar and sighs,
“Ah! come, lest I despair;”
The myrtle–thickets and ill–tempered thorns
Quiver and thrill within,
As through their leaves they feel the dainty touch
Of yellow jessamine.
The garden–roses wonder as they see
The wreaths of golden bloom,
Brought in from the far woods with eager haste
To deck the poorest room,
The rich man’s house, alike; the loaded hands
Give sprays to all they meet,
Till, gay with flowers, the people come and go,
And all the air is sweet.
The Southern land, well weary of its green
Which may not fall nor fade,
Bestirs itself to greet the lovely flower
With leaves of fresher shade;
The pine has tassels, and the orange–trees
Their fragrant work begin:
The spring has come – has come to Florida,
With yellow jessamine.
Constance Fenimore Woolson