May/June 2016 California Bountiful magazine
Story by Kate Campbell
Photos by Richard Green
Gardenias have gotten legs—and they're going places
Styles come and go. Think shoulder pads and platform shoes. These fashion items may be out at the moment, but it won't be long before they're back again—and probably with a fresh and unexpected twist.
Flower styles are much the same, especially when it comes to using them for entertaining and special occasions such as weddings and gift giving.
Cut-flower grower Robert Kitayama has seen flower trends come and go, but says there's a new take on beloved gardenias—beyond 1970s-era wrist corsages and 50th wedding anniversary arrangements. Today's gardenias have gotten legs—and they're going places. The long-stemmed beauties now have high-end designers, bridal magazines and even the Hollywood crowd buzzing.
The change has to do, in part, with a trend away from traditional gardenias that bloom at the end of branches, Kitayama said. After harvest, they don't typically have much stem for florists to work with when arranging bouquets or larger designs.
He has found a way to coax the notoriously persnickety shrubs into putting out fragrant flowers with 8- to 10-inch stems. Growers used to think cutting the plant's flower-producing branch damaged the plant, but Kitayama's experimentation proved otherwise.
Kitayama also extended the traditional spring/summer season of the flowers by growing them year-round in his family's Watsonville greenhouses. And like any hot fashion item, he said the farm usually sells out of gardenias.
"I rarely hear about gardenias in corsages anymore, but I swear whenever I talk about them, people always say it was their grandmother's or their aunt's favorite flower," said Kitayama, president and CEO of Kitayama Brothers. "Ask your friends about flowers they like and I'm pretty sure gardenias will pop up. It's a traditional, nostalgic flower."
Robert Kitayama says gardenias can be tricky to grow, but with decades of experience, he knows how to produce premium, long-stemmed blooms.
To understand the allure of these blooms, he said it helps to understand a bit of botanical history: Gardenias, native to tropical regions in Asia and Africa, are a shrub related to the plant family that includes coffee trees.
Ornamental cultivars such as gardenias number more than 140 different species. The plant was imported to the U.S. by Alexander Garden, a Scottish-born American physician and naturalist, during Colonial times. Well-known 18th century botanists Carl Linnaeus and John Ellis named the flowering shrubs "gardenia" in Garden's honor.
Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, once remarked that gardenias were his favorite flower. Jazz singer Billie Holiday was famous for wearing the flowers in her hair during performances. It's a celebrated bloom worldwide. It's just that in the past, the flower's stubby stem limited options for the way it could be enjoyed.
Although gardenias may have fallen out of favor for a time, Kitayama said the flower's beauty and fragrance create a memory imprint that brings up happy occasions and family connections. He attributes the gardenia's enduring appeal to its remarkable fragrance.
Researchers studying the role of scents in human sensibility support this idea, saying they've found a tight connection to smell, emotion and memory.
"With gardenia, the scent is a plus because it's such a distinct fragrance," Kitayama said. "I don't find many people who are negatively impacted by the scent. Just the opposite: Most people love it."
Gardenias require skill to grow and expert handling at harvest to ensure the sculpted perfection of each bloom. Manuel Cruz, above, carefully hand cuts and gathers gardenias before they are sorted and shipped nationwide.
Kitayama's family has been growing and shipping cut flowers nationwide from Northern California since 1948. The farm's greenhouses on Monterey Bay provide ideal growing conditions for the 20 or so varieties of flowers and floral greens they specialize in, he said.
The idea of growing gardenias in California, however, came during a visit to customers in Hawaii, Kitayama said.
"I was asked if I could get stemmed gardenias," he recalled. "I didn't even know what that was. In Hawaii, gardenias are seasonal, but florists wanted them year-round.
"If you go into a Hawaiian flower shop, you'll find they sell four or five short-stemmed gardenias wrapped in a ti leaf," he said. "It's a popular bouquet, but not always available. We're able to get year-round production in our greenhouses."
In the past four or five years, Kitayama said his operation has at least doubled gardenia production. But it's difficult to expand quickly, he said, because the plants are slow growing.
"Gardenias can be hard to come by in the (flower) stores," Kitayama said. "They can be temperamental to grow, which is distressing.
"Right now, it's kind of a chicken-or-egg dilemma," he added. "We have pretty good production now and young plants that will come online pretty soon. But we're having trouble meeting current demand. It's an interesting balancing act."
Commercial flower farms don't usually sell directly to the public, he said, but that doesn't stop emails from brides and party planners asking to buy. Kitayama Brothers works instead through a wholesale network to get blooms to consumers within a few days of harvest.
The elegant flower with the heady scent is finding growing interest from a new generation with big ideas about how to use the new stemmed variety, Kitayama said: "With gardenias today, they've got legs."
Robert Kitayama said people tend to appreciate gardenias more when they know what they're buying. Although the fragrance is appealing, it's the color, size and quality of bloom that dictate availability and price.
Premium blooms are the largest, he said, about 3 inches in diameter and usually more expensive than lesser grades. Stemmed gardenias are somewhat smaller than premium grade and are produced at lower volumes, which affects price.
"Work" gardenias, or seconds, are usually smaller, more open than premium blooms and may have small blemishes or uneven petals. Although still beautiful and fragrant, No. 3 grade gardenias, sometimes called "cocktail" gardenias, are generally the smallest, most open and imperfect.
Because price may be a factor for special occasions such as weddings and other large celebrations, it helps to know which flower grades are available and understand pricing differences. In a bridal bouquet, premium or stemmed blooms may be preferred. Other grades may work well for boutonnieres and tabletop arrangements.
How to select and enjoy gardenias:
- Gardenias come only in white, and lower petals should be bright white. A creamy to tan color may suggest aging. Check petals for browning or wrinkles.
- Cut gardenias last longer when petals are partially closed. They open quickly at room temperature and have a relatively short vase life—three to five days.
- Refrigerate blooms covered with damp cotton or facial tissue to prevent opening until ready to use.
- Gardenias bruise easily, so keep handling to a minimum.
- If an arrangement will be out for an extended length of time or temperatures are warm, mist with water.
- Stemmed gardenias in containers may need flower food to prolong vase life.