Jasminum sambac, commonly known as Arabian jasmine or sampaguita, originated in India but now grows widely in China, Southeast Asia and the South Pacific. Like other species of jasmine, sampaguita is exceptionally fragrant, with small white flowers that, in warm climates, bloom throughout the year. It is a subtropical evergreen that tends to sprawl, growing as a weedy shrub or a creeping vine. This aggressive growth habit has earned Jasminum sambac a reputation as invasive in some parts of the United States, but it also is a treasured ornamental and agricultural plant.
The species name "sambac" seems to derive from "zanbaq," the Arabic word for jasmine. It seems likely that the nickname, Arabian jasmine, refers to its introduction into China by Persian and central Asian traders. The name sampaguita evolved in turn from "sambac" through the Spanish colonizers of the Philippines, where this name is common.
Sampaguita was officially named the national flower of the Philippines in 1934. This symbolic status puts Jasminum sambac into much demand for garlands, which are used in weddings, made into decorations for religious holidays, given as graduation gifts and bestowed to welcome visitors. The growing of sampaguita and the making and selling of these garlands has become an important part of the rural economy.
Although nowhere else in the South Pacific has institutionalized the symbolic importance of the sampaguita like the Philippines, these small and fragrant flowers are commonly used for leis and ceremonial garlands throughout the region and in India.
In Southeast Asia, sampaguita has taken on a specific religious significance. James H. Wandersee and Renee M. Clary write that in Cambodia, the buds' "celestial" aroma and pure white color have made them popular as offerings to Buddha. The buds are harvested first thing in the morning and retain the scent more strongly than do fully open blossoms. In addition to being strung into garlands, the sampaguita used for offerings may be threaded onto a long wooden needle.
Sampaguita is the species of jasmine widely cultivated to make jasmine tea. The jasmine flowers are placed into dried tea leaves to infuse their scent and flavor. This process is repeated at least two times, or more for more intensely flavored, higher-grade teas. The making of jasmine tea dates back to the Song dynasty, around a thousand years ago, and is associated with the Fujian province in southeastern China.