Sometimes spotting the fragrant plant is easy. Magnolias and gardenias have very conspicuous flowers. Nobody could miss them. Fortune tea olive is different.
Clusters of tiny white flowers are tucked among the foliage. They’re easy for our eyes to miss. Fortunately, our noses won’t. These flowers smell so sweet and delicate that I’ve never run into anyone that found them objectionable. Around here blooming season is usually October and most of November. In milder climates plants can bloom all winter.
It doesn’t end there. This versatile evergreen shrub grows fast but can be maintained as a five foot hedge. It also can be trained into a small tree. Fortune tea olive tolerates severe and improper pruning exceptionally well. It’s tough.
Many people mistake this shrub for a holly. When plants are young they have spiny leaves resembling American holly, but leaves emerge from stems in groups of two. Hollies have what we call alternate leaves, arising from stems singly.
Fortune tea olive is often referred to by its Genus name Osmanthus. Translated from Greek, it means fragrant flower. Many variegated and solid green cultivars adorn the North Carolina landscape.
Last winter dished out some cold temperatures, but I saw no winter injury on any local specimens. Most Osmanthus species are listed as hardy to zone 7 but we had a few days last winter below that temperature threshold.
Upon close inspection, most Osmanthus species have two types of foliage. Juvenile growth is spiny and holly-like. Adult growth more closely resembles Japanese privet as leaf edges are smooth.
All Osmanthus species require full or nearly full sun for optimal growth. Flowering is especially enhanced by sunlight. They are quite tolerant to a variety of soil conditions though and thrive in all but the wettest soils. Acid soils are not a problem either.
These shrubs display outstanding resistance to damage by deer, rabbits and other wildlife. Plants are also not invasive, so they are environmentally friendly. Best of all, they aren’t disease susceptible and have few insect pest problems either. This season, especially this fall has been tough on trees and shrubbery as far as pests and diseases go.
They seem to compliment so many of our other landscape plants. They make great screens and are dense enough to keep most unwanted guests out, both two and four legged. If they grow too tall they can be pruned back into place.
This evergreen has so many things going for it it’s a shame you can’t eat it. Well, in a way you can. Its flowers make a delightful herbal tea. They also can be added to regular black tea for a sweeter fragrance. Osmanthus flower extracts also create interest when folded into mild flavored cookie or cake dough.
Both the blossoms and the leaves of these plants are used by the perfume industry. I never realized how much until I started researching it. Numerous products are out there. The glowing reports I read almost made me want to go out and buy some. Maybe some other time.
Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.