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The sweet scent of tea olives

Question: I was visiting the Birmingham Botanical Gardens recently and everywhere I went a wonderful sweet aroma was in the air, but I could not tell what plant it came from.

Answer: Fall is a great time to visit the BBG for many reasons, but the fragrance coming from tea olives is highest on my list. Tea olives are in the plant Genus Osmanthus, which comes from the Greek language and means “fragrant (osma) flower (anthus)” and they certainly live up to their name. Tea olive, as the name indicates, belongs to the Olive Family (Oleaceae) along with numerous jasmines, which are also very fragrant. The usually white blooms are small and not extremely showy, so I can understand how you could not tell where the fragrance originated. Even though individual blooms are small, some cultivars have clusters large enough to add some floral interest. Tea olives are very nice evergreen shrubs with holly like foliage. You can easily tell the two apart even when not in bloom by looking at the leaf arrangement. Hollies have leaves arranged alternately down the stem and tea olives have an opposite arrangement.

There is a large planting of Osmanthus x fortunei ‘Fruitlandii’ at the BBG that makes a wonderful screen planting and is a pleasure to walk near. The mature height of tea olives may vary from six to thirty feet depending on the species and cultivar. I once lived in Mobile where the “fragrant tea olive”, Osmanthus fragrans was the most commonly planted species. This species is less cold tolerant but will survive in central or north Alabama in a protected micro-climate. It would be best to locate this plant on the south or southwest side of a structure. As with camellias, the main risk from cold is the rapid freezing and thawing action that is worse with a morning sun exposure. As the name seems to indicate, it is the most fragrant of all the tea olives and therefore may be worth the risk of occasional cold damage. It also has the longest bloom period with blooms possible in every month with the letter “R” included.

In general all the tea olives will grow in full sun to part shade, but in our area I would suggest a site with a break from the afternoon sun. Once established they are fairly drought tolerant but they may take a couple years to become established. Fall is a great time to plant and trees planted then will require less care than spring or summer plantings. Choose a well drained area with slightly acidic soil for best results.

Tea olives are really quite easy to care for once established and have very few pest problems. If pest problems do occur, it is probably due to stress from poor soil conditions or drought. Scale insects may flare up from time to time but can be controlled with horticultural oil sprays. Minimal pruning is needed unless the trees become too large. If you do prune them, do so in the late winter to avoid removing the flower buds, which form on the new growth each spring and summer. The exception to this rule would be the Delavay tea olive (Osmanthus delavayi) and our native Devilwood (Osmanthus americanus), which bloom in the spring and should be pruned just after blooming like other spring blooming plants.

The only native tea olive is Devilwood, which is indigenous to swamps, and stream banks in the southern US, including south Alabama. The name comes from the extremely hard wood, which is a “devil” to split and work with. The leaves are larger and less holly like than other tea olives. Like other tea olives, the flowers are quite fragrant but they occur in early spring on last year’s growth. This native plant is more tolerant of wet soil conditions but is adaptable to most Alabama soils. It would be a great choice for a rain garden because it tolerates frequent flooding.

For more information about this group of plants visit: http://hgic.clemson.edu/factsheets/hgic1083.htm.