Friday, September 23, 2011
Botanical Name: Osmanthus fragrans (Oleaceae) olive family
Attributes: A great dark green, broad-leaved evergreen native to China with tiny, wonderfully fruity-scented white flowers that perfume the air every early fall. It is my favorite fragrance of the plant world and a highlight of the late season here at the Dixon Gallery and Gardens.
Tea Olive’s tiny white flowers fill the early fall air with a delightful fragrance. Its attributes and easy care make it a wonderful plant for Mid-South landscapes.
The common name is confusing because it is neither a tea plant (camellia) nor an olive (olea), although it is in the same family as the latter. There are several Osmanthus species that are used as ornamental plants, but this one is the most fragrant. The flowers are not very conspicuous, but the fragrance carries long distances, and it is frequently asked about by our guests in the gardens. Tea olive has attractive white bark similar to that of our native American holly.
Growing tips: The plant is easily cultivated in good, well-drained garden soil and is tolerant of sun or shade, although planting it in a location that receives afternoon shade will promote the best dark-leaf color. The best flowering occurs in areas of more sun. It is hardy in USDA Zones 10 to 7, and it could suffer a little burn on the coldest of winters every few years here if it is sited out in the open.
Landscape value: Large evergreen shrub with dark green leaves growing to 20 feet high with a 10-foot-wide spread over 10 to 15 years. It can be easily maintained by a yearly pruning in the winter. We are at the northern-most range for this plant, making Memphis the best place to grow it in the state.
We have several plantings at the Dixon at the entrance to the museum and in areas around the cutting garden and near the Hughes Pavilion, sited where folks can enjoy its fruity perfume. It works well as a specimen, hedge or screen, and the dark-colored leaves provide a year-round backdrop to display other flowering plants.
An orange-flowered form, ‘Aurantiacus,’ has more conspicuous flowers. It is a fantastic plant for Mid-South landscapes and should be more widely promoted and used because of its easy care and attributes.
Availability: We offered the orange-flowered form last year at our plant sale. All of our larger plants at the Dixon came from local nurseries like The Stockyard in Arlington, The Dabney Nursery on Hacks Cross Road or Quality Nursery in Southaven. These nurseries occasionally have this plant for sale.