If I could choose any wildflower for the state flower of South Carolina, I would agree with the choice so wisely made in 1924: Yellow Jessamine, Gelsemium sempervirens. Late winter on Kiawah, while the leaf buds are still barely beginning to emerge on deciduous trees and bushes, cheerful Yellow Jessamine is in bloom! With its shiny evergreen leaves, sweet scent, and shockingly bright yellow trumpet flowers, it’s an incongruous plant to discover on a walk through the woods. Despite its look like an exotic escapee from a garden, Yellow Jessamine is native to the state, common in forests from the coast to the Piedmont, and found growing in every South Carolina county. The vine is often high up in the tree canopy, but it is easily discovered on a nature walk, thanks to the bright yellow flowers that have fallen on the forest floor below.
In addition to growing wild throughout our state, Yellow Jessamine is widely available as a cultivated plant. It is easy to grow and maintain, and an excellent choice for arbors, fences, and other good vine spots. It can also be grown as a low-maintenance groundcover. Because it doesn’t need to be watered (except during long droughts) or fertilized, it is also an eco-friendly choice for your garden. If you already have invasive vines established on your property, consider removing them and substituting Yellow Jessamine. English Ivy, Japanese Honeysuckle, and Japanese Climbing Fern are three commonly sold vines that, while undeniably pretty plants, will escape a garden and take over a natural area, eliminating native plants and habitat for wildlife. Yellow Jessamine will grow just as thick, and in my opinion, will be even more beautiful with its profuse, classy blooms.
The thick growth of a well-established jessamine vine will provide year-round cover for birds and other small animals in your garden. The early flowers are also an important source of nectar for early spring pollinators and attract butterflies, bees, and hummingbirds. Despite its innocent beauty, all parts of the plant are toxic when ingested, so it’s important to keep those tempting candy-colored flowers away from young children, livestock, and pets.
With its romantic appearance, sweet jasmine scent, and tremendous benefit to wildlife, Yellow Jessamine is a truly special native plant that brings early spring delight to both naturalists in forests and gardeners in the yard. If you would like to design a garden in the southeast that provides habitat for birds and butterflies, Yellow Jessamine should be near the top of your list!