I moved to the southeastern United States in 1997 after living nearly everywhere else. My profession took me to South Carolina where I was to work for 5 years documenting its biodiversity. Three things stay with me from my time in that lovely state: a fondness for grits, the husband who found me there, and a deep and abiding passion for a certain small tree – the Tea Olive or Osmanthus fragrans. The scent of osmanthus blossoms is elusively sweet and rich, floral yet reminiscent of sunripened apricots, very slightly earthy while at the same time ethereal; a scent that warms with the sun. Mostly it defies description. I was to smell that fragrance for nearly three years before finally determining its source. It floated out at me from the strangest places, a parking garage with a narrow planting of spindly shrubs or a front yard with an ordinary-looking hedge. I kept looking for the source but did not find anything spectacular enough to give off such an amazing scent. The answer finally came from the botanist with whom I worked. She showed me this small, tough-leaved shrub growing next to my parking garage. Certainly those tiny white blooms growing out of the axils and gray twigs of the shrub were not the source!
The osmanthus is an evergreen shrub native to Asia and cultivated as an ornamental plant throughout the world. In Asia the flowers are valued for the delicate scent they add to green or black tea or they may be dried and used to make a tea by themselves. Such a tea is said to promote beautiful skin and will scent your kitchen. There are a variety of teas with osmanthus, generally oolong or green tea. The fragrance most suitable for perfumery however, comes from a variety of osmanthus with gold-orange flowers.
Although osmanthus is adaptable to even poor sandy soil it does best in reasonably good soil. It likes sun or partial shade, especially morning sun with afternoon shade or filtered light. It is listed as suitable for USDA Zones 8 to 10 but can probably be grown in colder (or warmer) areas with care. In colder climates a large pot that can be moved indoors or a sunny sheltered corner may support a few of these hardy trees. Keep it well-watered but not wet. It is important to remember that your osmanthus will bloom only on older wood so leave it un-pruned. Once of blooming age, it will flower from fall through the winter and into spring and may surprise you with a few blossoms in the summer.
I have seven osmanthus shrubs in my south Florida yard where they get morning sun and filtered shade from the palm trees growing overhead. Two are growing in large pots – these are the two I rescued from under my huge Rose Apple tree that fell over during Hurricane Wilma in 2005. I had planted them at the base of the tree and they were just getting established. Soon after the hurricane passed I went out and searched with my hands through the loosened soil and mulch around the tree roots where I knew the shrubs to be. I pulled them free and dug them up before men with chain saws came to cut up our fallen tree. These two are now in pots and can be moved to safety if needed. The other five are clustered to one side of the driveway; at the right time of day when they are in bloom I feel I could find our house with my eyes closed.
Part of the difficulty I had in identifying an osmanthus tree is the tendency of the fragrance to sometimes be strongest away from the plant and to appear and disappear. In South Carolina I was not able to follow it back to the plant nor see any obvious flowers and the scent would be there one day and gone the next. Now if I go outside during a cool morning before the sun is up, there is virtually no fragrance. As the day progresses the scent is obvious just around the bushes but is elusive. A warm, sunny day will bring the scent out and it floats on the breeze for 10 or 20 feet. A nose to the tiny blooms is rewarded with a delicate, sweet scent. By evening, as the temperature cools, the fragrance dissipates and is gone.
Plants are easily obtainable in nurseries throughout the southeastern US or at websites such as www.rareflora.com.
Some fragrances with rich osmanthus notes:
Hermès Hermèssence Osmanthe Yunnan
Ormonde Jayne Osmanthus
Annick Goutal Eau du Fier
The Different Company Osmanthus
Jean Patou 1000 (Mille)
Serge Lutens Datura Noir
Serge Lutens Nuit de Cellophane
Keiko Mecheri Fleur d’Osmanthus
L’Artisan Fleur de Carotte
L’Artisan Thé Pour Un Été
Issey Miyake L’Eau d’Issey (EDP version only)
Parfum d’Empire Osmanthus Interdite
Photography by Elise Pearlstine