Gardenia, botanical name Gardenia augusta, is primarily valued for its highly scented blossoms, although gardenia flowers have culinary and medicinal uses as herbs. Gardenia fruits contain yellow pigments and are used as a spice and substitute for saffron. This herb is nutritious, being a source of antioxidants.
Although gardenia is principally known as a pot plant and for its flowers, which are often included in bridal bouquets and used as a perfume for cosmetics, gardenia is also considered as an herb because both the flowers and fruits produced by Gardenia augusta are edible and have culinary, medicinal uses.
The attractive gardenia plant is one of over 200 genera of evergreen shrubs in the Rubiaceae botanical family, which numbers over 10,000 species. Possibly its most famous relative being Coffea arabica, better known as coffee.
Gardenia augusta is a shrub that can grow to a height of 10 feet and has uneven, oval shaped leaves; 2-4 inches long. Gardenia flowers appear in summertime and are white with a waxy appearance and a sweet, highly scented, captivating aroma. Some cultivars produce double flowers, for example Fortuniana and Veitchiana or Veitchii. By mid to late summer gardenia flowers cease to blossom and small yellow oblong, shaped fruits appear.
Gardenia originates from the warm and tropical regions of Asia and does not tolerate sudden changes in temperature or cold drafts, although there are gardenia cultivars that are more cold-hardy, such as Summer Snow and Shooting Star, which grow in temperate climates, if protected from frost.
Dr. Alexander Garden (1730-1791) must be one of the few people privileged enough to have had a plant genus (Gardenia) named after him by Linnaeus. The Scottish born physician who lived and worked in South Carolina from 1752 had a passion for flora and fauna. In his spare time Garden collected plant specimens which he sent to the Swedish botanist and naturalist Carl Linnaeus. In 1754 gardenia plants were first introduced to Britain and were mistakenly classified as related to the Jasminum species, which is native to South Africa and not Asia. This confusion in taxonomy led to a popular alternative name for the herb, Cape Jasmine and its former botanical name, Gardenia jasminoides.
Medicinal Uses: The first documented use of gardenia in Chinese herbology, or herbal medicine, was from the Han dynasty ( AD25-AD220). Gardenia leaves, flowers and fruits were included in several canon or formulas, which are mostly remedies for the common cold. In Asia, gardenia is known as the 'happiness herb' because it is said to detoxify the liver, thereby releasing negative emotions. This may have led to the association between gardenia and love, healing and spiritually.
In China, gardenia flowers are used to flavor herbal teas, often in combination with other herbs and flowers such as chrysanthemums. Gardenia infused teas are known to detoxify the blood, relieve congestion and help lower LDL, or bad, cholesterol. Externally, gardenia is used for skin inflammation, sprains and has blood staunching properties. It is still used in the traditional medicine of Vietnam, internally as a hemostatic agent.
Nutrition: Some of the curative effects of gardenia are no doubt the result of the many phytochemicals found in the color pigments of gardenia fruits and flowers. Indeed, gardenia fruits contain carotenoids including crocin and crocetin, also found in the Crocus species of plant, of which saffron is a member. Aside from their ability to add a subtle yellow color to foods, the carotenoids have numerous health benefits.
- Both crocin and crocetin, of which crocetin is a central component of, are antioxidants or free radical scavengers, and may, according to in vitro studies, reduce or inhibit the grow of cancer.
- A 2009 study at the Military Medical Univercity in Shanghai, China on Crocus satvia (saffron) found that the carotenoid crocin has antidepressant properties and merits further investigation as a possible plant material for curing depression.
- In another study by the Mashhad University of Medical Sciences, in 2007, extract of crocin from saffron was given to male lab rats and their sexual activity was monitored. Results suggest that crocin is a natural aphrodisiac, at least for rodents.
- Traditionally used as a treatment for diabetes in Chinese herbal medicine, gardenia extract was found to contain a chemical called genipin. Researchers at Harvard Medical School found that genipin inhibits the functions of an enzyme which increases the risk of type 2 diabetes.
Culinary Uses: Gardenia flowers can be added to salads, used as garnish, and the fruits can be eaten out of hand. However, this herb is primarily valued for its natural yellow coloring, from its fruit, used in the food industry as a less expensive substitute for the spice, Saffron.
Primary image, gardenia flower; image credit.
Late summer gardenia flowers with emerging yellow fruits. Image credit.