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Tea Olive for Fragrance

It could happen in the garden district of New Orleans or on Grandma's back porch in Mississippi. You stop and sniff.

What is that wonderful smell? Is it a rose? Or is it jasmine? Maybe a gardenia?

You look for blooms. No luck. Sniffing like a bloodhound, you finally run into a dense evergreen shrub, and there, tucked away in the deep green foliage, are clusters of tiny flowers. You have discovered the sweet Tea Olive, and you will never forget the fragrance. You are enchanted for life.

Tea Olives (Osmanthus) grow in the Deep South and other parts of the country in hardiness zones 7-10. Another name is False Holly, and they do look similar to hollies but can be easily distinguished by looking at the leaves. Holly leaves grow in an alternate pattern, while tea olive leaves grow opposite each other. Osmanthus heterophyllus is also called holly tea olive. It is one of the shorter varieties of tea olive. 'Goshiki' is a variegated cultivar I grow in my garden. There are many varieties. With a naturally upright shape, plants may reach 6 to 30 feet tall, depending on the type or cultivar. They are often used as screens or hedges, but they may also be featured as specimens. Osmanthus fragrans is another type of tea olive I grow. This is a young specimen. In a garden setting it should have a slow to moderate growth rate to 6-10 feet tall and about 5 feet wide, though ultimately it could reach 20 feet.Some make beautiful small trees, while others can be maintained as low as 4 feet. Be sure to check the ultimate size of the shrub before planting, so that you get the right cultivar for your needs. All have tiny fragrant flowers, which can be creamy white to gold or orange.

If planted in the right location, these are great low maintenance shrubs, which is why I have chosen them for my garden. They have a naturally pleasing upright form, and pruning is optional, though one may prune them in early spring to encourage lush growth or to maintain size. They adapt to many soils, though they are happiest in moist, well drained, acidic soil, the type of soil also loved by azaleas and camellias. 

They are tough plants that thrive on neglect, though I do fertilize in spring with an organic fertilizer for acid loving plants. Once established they are moderately drought tolerant, and they are also pest, deer, and disease resistent. They like sun to partial shade; in deeper shade they may be spindly and not produce as many flowers. 

Hummingbirds and butterflies are attracted to the flowers. Most tea olives bloom from September through fall, and in some locations through the winter. One type, Osmanthus delavay, produces spring blooms. If you choose to prune this one, be sure to do so after it has finished blooming in spring, to avoid cutting off the flowers. 

Tea Olives are long lived, enduring, and sweetly enticing; it's easy to understand why Osmanthus is a traditional symbol of romance. I am hopelessly sentimental, and I can't imagine my garden without these delightful shrubs. 

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Reader Comments (22)

OK - that's it. I'm packing my bags and heading your way……just for a sniff!!! Tea Olive flowers sound absolutely enchanting! (And I'm a Zone 5A, so they will never grow here…)

October 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAstrid

What a beautiful, versatile plant. The fragrance is a bonus, too. The variegated one you grow is eye catching.

Wish I could grow one up here in the north!

October 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLaurrie

This sounds like a very useful shrub. A combination of low maintenance, disease resistance, and best of all, scent, is a good endorsement. That it is endorsed by the butterflies and hummingbirds is even better.

October 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNorthern Shade

Sounds lovely. So sad that Iive in Zone 5. When does it bloom? We may be in South Carolina for Christmas, any chance we'll get a sniff?

October 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJason

Lovely shrubs and to have a superb perfume too at this time of year - fantastic!

October 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPauline Mulligan

When I started reading I thought you were going to feature Elaeagnus x ebbingei, it has similar evergreen leaves and a perfume from tiny insignificant flowers you can smell right accross the garden, mine's flowering now and I love it. I like your variegated Osmanthus heterophyllus, the folliage looks very attractive. Christina

October 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterChristina

How much sun do you put them in? I'm thinking they need to be in total shade here, but I'm not sure. My neighbor has one and it never blooms in full shade, so that would be a shame.

October 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJess

Totally agree about the heavenly fragrance of this plant. And such a versatile, undemanding plant too!

October 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMark and Gaz

Love the fragrance of osmanthus, i have one, it is a small species of osmanthus and only grows to 1 and a half metres.

October 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKaren

I have meant to get a sweet olive for years. The campus of NCSU has several huge San Jose osmanthus (sweet olive hybrid) and the fragrance around them in fall is incredible and sweet.

October 7, 2012 | Unregistered Commentersweetbay

This is my favorite scent in the garden. I just love it. I recently bought the one that has the sticky leaves. Do you know if it blooms also? I've never seen it blooming.

October 8, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPhillip

Hi everyone! I appreciate each of your comments very much!

Jason, some tea olives bloom into the winter,especially in milder regions, but most have finished blooming by the end of November. It's possible you may get lucky and get a whiff!

Jess, tea olives do best in sun to partial shade.

Phillip, the holly tea olive should also bloom. My variegated ones have never bloomed, however, and I think it's because I have kept them pruned too much. They should bloom on year old wood, so this next year I am going to be sure to prune mine in early spring only and see if they will produce blooms for me. Good luck with yours!

Best wishes and happy gardening to you all! Deborah

October 8, 2012 | Registered CommenterDeborah Elliott

I miss this versatile plant from my time in San Francisco. It can fill a yard with fragrance in the right conditions.

October 8, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterReed Pugh

They are wonderfully scented, we were able to grow them in White Rock, because it was such mild winters....loved the soft fragrance.

Jen @ Muddy Boot Dreams

October 8, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJen @ Muddy Boot Dreams

Nice looking plant with the holly shaped leaves. It does not grow here but it seems like a versatile plant I wish did.

October 8, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDonna

What a wonderful tree...I love the idea of it as a symbol of romance. I have never seen or smelled this lovely tree but if I see one in a garden now I will make sure I spend some time with it.

October 8, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDonna@Gardens Eye View

Wow! I learned something new here today. great info

October 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterChris

Deb, so funny that we should be on the same track this week with our fragrance theme!

I love Osmanthus but just have 'Goshiki' and I have never noticed any fragrance from them. Maybe they are the exception? O. delavayi is fabulous for spring but after reading your post now I want to find O. fragrans. Is it bothered by deer do you know?

October 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKaren Chapman

They're absolutely lovely, and I imagine the scent is incredible. I will look for them next time I'm in New Orleans! (Actually, I think I remember seeing them there, and might have a photo somewhere...)

October 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPlantPostings

These are great shrubs. 'Goshiki' is one of my favorites. I heard it described by a horticulturalist as bullet proof. Excellent and informative post.

October 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCasa Mariposa

Sounds exquisite! I've always imagined the scent of gardenias but never heard of this one. I'm now imagining the scent of a cup of tea and olive oil blended together - maybe not.

October 10, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterb-a-g

Oh my, why can't blogs come in smell-o-vision? Now it's something that I *must* smell! I wonder how I can make that happen....

October 11, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRobinL
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