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What Time is it in Nature: Carolina Jessamine

March 28, 2013

One of our evergreen vines is currently in bloom at Prairie Ridge. The Carolina Jessamine’s (Gelsemium sempervirens) green leaves provide a splash of color in our otherwise brown native plant garden in winter and the bright flowers are one of the earliest signs of spring you’ll see on our grounds.

Carolina Jessamine

Carolina Jessamine is a climbing vine that can reach heights over 20 feet. The leaves are rich green, long and slender, and shiny, usually 1-3 inches long. Carolina Jessamine is a common garden plant in the south because it can grow in full sun or partial shade and remains green throughout the year in most areas that experience mild winters. The vines have 1.5 inch trumpet-shaped, bright yellow flowers that give off a heavy, sweet scent.

Carolina Jessamine flower

In spite of its popularity with gardeners, all parts of the Carolina Jessamine contains strychnine-like toxins that can make people sick if the plant is accidentally or intentionally consumed or cause skin reactions in sensitive individuals. The flowers are similar in size and shape to Honeysuckle, so children can be poisoned if they suck nectar from Jessamine flowers. However, their toxicity also means that many species of grazers will avoid eating Jessamine, including deer, which may partially account for their popularity in home gardens.

The toxins in the nectar do not deter pollinators, however. The nectar is reportedly toxic to Honeybees, but we commonly see Eastern Tiger Swallowtails and Eastern Carpenter Bees slurping nectar from the Prairie Ridge flowers, as well as a variety of other butterflies and bees. Large bees, such as the Carpenter Bees and several bumblebee species, are too large to fit inside the flower, so they “rob” them by chewing holes near the base of the trumpets and sucking the nectar out without pollinating the flowers. Nectar robbing is a common behavior in bumblebees and other large bees when they visit trumpet flowers, so look for them sitting at the base of Jessamine flowers if you want to see this fascinating behavior!

Carolina Jessamine often blooms several times a year, but especially in late fall and early spring. Our Jessamine is currently covered in bright yellow flowers! Next time you visit Prairie Ridge, be sure to stop by the Nature Neighborhood Garden so you can see the cheery yellow blooms or smell their sweet scent wafting on the breeze.

What Time is it in Nature is a weekly feature highlighting the current plants, animals, and other wildlife at the Musuem’s public outdoor facility, Prairie Ridge Ecostation. Find out more about the natural happenings at Prairie Ridge at our What Time is it in Nature Archive!

(Photos by Chris Goforth)

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