Tree Talk: The scent of the South Pacific … and all things exotic

Tree Talk: The scent of the South Pacific … and all things exotic

Tree Talk: The scent of the South Pacific … and all things exotic

To Dr. Hortensia Freud:

Dear Dr. Freud,

In the last two weeks I’ve been having a strange, albeit not debilitating, psychological experience.

Daily, on my morning walk, the song “Bali Ha’i” from the musical “South Pacific” pops into my mind and, once triggered, stays stuck for the rest of the day.

Am I longing to escape to some exotic and far away clime? Actually, the weather here, now, seems perfect. Hum…? Am I in the initial stages of transmigration of the soul? What is going on with me?

Dr. Freud responds (to be read with a Viennese accent and a Green Thumb):

Ah ha! Very easy. Nothing to worry about. You’ve been strolling the sidewalks of Madison Park. You passed a delicate plant with small, waxy leaves and perky, but unpretentious, flowers. Then the fragrance hits you, and you were instantly transported to a steamy, tropical night and your internal sound system began playing “Bali Ha’i.” The olfactory sense can do that. The sweetly powerful scent came from star jasmine (Trachelospermum jasminoides), as deliciously pungent as gardenia or plumeria. No doubt this psychological disturbance (if one can call it that) will be with you until the clusters of tiny flowers fade later this month. Relax. Enjoy the scent and the music while they last.

One of the great things about writing this column is that it gives me unlimited access to all kinds of great minds and high achievers (imaginary or not).

Dr. Freud nailed this one. Quite likely other readers have experienced the same psychological response. Star jasmine seems to have besotted local gardeners and swept them into a romance that has them planting this handsome evergreen vine all around our village. You’ll see this plant climbing up walls, meandering over arbors, sometimes trained up a single pole or even the trunk of a tree.  

Easy to grow in our mild climate and rich acidic soil, star jasmine is most useful as a vine, growing up where the flowers can waft their perfume at nostril level.

In the American South, where it has been a garden staple for over two centuries, it sometimes scrambles horizontally as a ground cover; or is consistently pruned back to form a shrub; or is grown in a large container.

One of its common names is confederate jasmine, but there’s no rebel in this plant. It is easy to grow, well behaved, takes to pruning and performs at its best, no matter your politics. Another, lesser-known common name is Trader’s Compass, coming from an Uzbekistan aphorism stating that traders of good character can follow the scent, leading them in the right direction — the Far East.

Native to China, this jasmine’s abundant green leaves are oval, reach about 2 inches in length and mature to a lustrous, dark green. A profusion of flowers appears in clusters on short side branches, each blossom being about an inch wide. Bees love them.

They appear in mid-July and, given the best of our cool summers, last a month or more. In bloom, the plant is a sparkling spectacle in white and green. Throughout the year its masses of handsome and sturdy leaves will screen a garden as the vines wind up fences, only growing denser and leafier as the plant is sheered back to groom the long tendrils that shoot out as it grows. Should you erect a sturdy chain link fence for security or to corral a pet, star jasmine planted in intervals along the base will quickly turn it into a wall of greenery and floral magic, trumping ivy.

Plants are best put in the ground in autumn or early spring, but if you are willing to water newly set out plants prodigiously, you can put them in now. All plants need plenty of water to get off to a good start. Once established, star jasmine is surprisingly drought tolerant. It will be very happy in our rich native soil and, well supported, can climb 20 to 30 feet.

Until recently, this jasmine was not considered reliably hardy in our climate. To everyone’s surprise, it hasn’t skipped a beat due to last winter’s deep temperature dip. It is now said to be hardy to 15 degrees Fahrenheit. I would suspect that even if we had a prolonged cold spell and the plant were killed above ground, it might well emerge at soil level in late spring the following year.

Nurseries all over the Seattle metro area have star jasmine in 1- to 15-gallon cans. Give it a spot close to where you spend a lot of time sitting in the garden, or a place that you pass regularly, a place where you can submit to the intoxication.

Come next summer, prepare yourself for your journey, your transmigration.


“Bali Ha’i” by Juanita Hill


”Bali Ha’i may call you

“Any night, any day

“In your heart you’ll hear it call you:

“ ’Come away, come away’ … ”


-- Rogers & Hammerstein’s “South Pacific