yellow jasmine 2

Yellow jasmine

The graceful trumpet-shaped blossoms of Gelsemium sempervirens (known as yellow jessamine and Carolina jasmine) cover vines — and in turn, fences — all over my neighborhood this time of year, scenting my evening walks with a soft fragrance. Dense clusters of yellow blooms accented by shiny, dark green leaves leave me feeling envious and dissatisfied with my bare fence. I vow to get a yellow jessamine vine for my garden as soon as I can.

But then I read this online in a guide to nectar plants by Michelle Peterson: “Be cautious about toxic plants like Yellow Jessamine aka Carolina jasmine (Gelsemium sempervirens) … which (is) poisonous to bees.”

Poisonous to bees? How can that be?

Before ditching the idea of planting the vine at home, I do more research, first online and then with the experts. I discover soon enough that Agatha Christie was well acquainted with the paralytic properties of the alkaloid gelsemine, derived from G. sempervirens.

Her 1927 novel (or collection of short stories) "The Big Four" includes “The Yellow Jasmine Mystery,” in which Hercule Poirot investigates the death of Mr. Paynter:

“It was clear that, too weak to hold a pen, Mr. Paynter had dipped his finger in the ink-pot and managed to scrawl these two words across the surface of the newspaper he held — but the words themselves seemed utterly fantastic: ‘Yellow Jasmine’ — just that and nothing more”

Reports in pharmaceutical journals recounted tales of gardeners who had come in contact with the Gelsemium plant, only to collapse into convulsions and die, according to the journal Chemistry World. The chemical is untraceable.

So, I’ve heard of death by oleander before, but death by yellow jasmine is a new one to me. If it is that toxic to humans, surely it also must be an enemy of pollinators, especially our endangered honeybees.

“Yes and no,” said Dennis Ring, of LSU. “It turns out that it is poisonous for bees, but they have to consume the nectar in very high quantities to get really sick and die.”

The North Carolina source seems to support what Ring had to say: “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 [them].”

Hmmm, curiouser and curiouser … until Ring connects me with Robert Danka, of the U.S. Department of Agriculture bee lab in Baton Rouge.

“Maybe the issue boils down to dose versus body mass,” wrote Danka in an email. He said researchers have seen cases in east Texas where there was apparent sickening of honeybees from contact with the plant, but that was only in cases where there were no other flowers blooming and the bees relied solely on the Gelsemium for food.

Larger bees such as carpenter bees and bumblebees are well-suited to pollinating the plant, Danka said, and their larger body mass means they would have to consume the toxin in a larger dose to be affected. These big native bees (as opposed to the smaller non-native honeybees) have evolved along with the yellow jessamine, also a native, making them better adapted to it.

Joe Willis, of the LSU Agricultural Center, said the jury is still out on just how dangerous these plants are to the honeybee population.

“There have been no published research reports that … show honey bee toxicity of yellow jasmine,” Willis said. “But if a beekeeper wants to cut down his vines, I wouldn't stop him.”

As for me, I think I’ll avoid the issue completely and forgo planting the yellow blooming beauty. There are dozens of other plants that won’t leave me worrying (more than I already do) about honeybees. Mandevilla, anyone?


R. Stephanie Bruno writes about homes and gardens. Contact her at rstephaniebruno@gmail.com.