It is hard to find a better smell than the fragrant tea olive. When I was in school in Athens, my walk from the dorm to my 1st period English 101 class took me by a large grouping of these Osmanthus fragrans and tea olive reminds me of that walk every time I smell it.
Osmanthus fragrans grows as a large evergreen shrub or small tree that can reach 20 feet tall. Full sun or part shade, fragrant tea olive is a great addition to almost any landscape. With a medium growth rate at approximately 4-12 inches per year, this type of tea olive is influenced by soil quality and organic matter content, available nutrients and water availability. Their dark green semi-serrated leaves resemble the leaf of a holly, which explains why the Osmanthus is sometimes called a false holly. Occasionally, it’s referred to as sweet olive. For those who need to differentiate a holly from an Osmanthus, a holly will have an opposite leaf pattern while Osmanthus is alternate.
Flowers of all sweet olive species are intensely fragrant, often being compared to the scent of peaches, orange blossoms or jasmine. The most common flower color is creamy white, but depending on cultivar, can vary to include pure white, pale to deep yellow, and orange. While individual flowers are small, the clusters are usually large and numerous enough to be quite showy. Fragrant tea olive blooms in the same months that oysters are safe to eat, but are most prolific September through November. Blooms will persist well into spring. There is also an orange flowering Osmanthus fragrans that is spectacular when it blooms, but only has one real predominant fall showing a year.
With a little bit of a dull green, sweet olive is a good accent plant for placing near a doorway, window or outdoor living area. I tend to not use it as a focal plant because it can be a little bland. There are some super specimens around town, including one of the biggest I’ve seen on the edge of the 18th green of Forest Hills Golf Course. Occasionally people will use a hedge of sweet olive as a screen, but I would recommend only doing this if they’re in full sun. Fragrant tea olive can be a little thin in the middle if put in too much shade.
Tea olives rarely need pruning since they usually form a pleasing shape on their own. However, they can be pruned selectively for desired shape. Try to hand prune since the leaves are slight elongated and look rough when sheared in half with gas/electric trimmers. Prune most tea olives before growth starts in spring, since they flower on the current season’s growth. Be aware that tea olives that are pruned back severely may take several years to come back into bloom.
Sweet olives are moderately drought-tolerant once established. They are long-lived and virtually pest free. Occasional disease and insect problems can develop, mainly under stressful conditions or wet feet.
There are a couple of other types of Osmanthus worth mentioning. Fortune’s Osmanthus is a dense-growing tea olive that has a more serrated leaf than the fragrans species. This is a great plant for screening in sun or a good bit of shade. This evergreen blooms a little, but the main feature is its tight form and dense growth. If pesky neighbors seem to be visiting a little too often, the serrated leaf can help deter them.
Holly tea olives are a smaller species of Osmanthus growing between 8 and 10 feet tall and slightly narrower in width. The leaves on these False Hollies have both juvenile and adult leaf forms. The juvenile leaves on this species are very spiny and Chinese holly-like in appearance. Adult leaves are smooth-margined, with a spine only at the tip. This species is great for a formal hedge or a accent of evergreen texture in the landscape. There is even a variegated form of this Osmanthus that is also very showy.
Get to know your Osmanthus. These are great plants that your landscape will appreciate.
Reach Campbell Vaughn, the UGA Agriculture and Natural Resource agent for Richmond County, by e-mailing email@example.com.