Scented Garden : Osmanthus or Tea Olive

by Elise Pearlstine

osmanthus

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

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23 Comments

  • Marina: I love how you describe the aroma of osmanthus. I can almost smell it reading your article. February 11, 2011 at 7:33am Reply

  • Katy: Thank you for another great post, Elise! I read the one about palmarosa and had an aha moment. My friend in Florida Keys had this plant. I think that it must have been it, because it smelled just like you describe. I only know osmanthus from perfumes (TDC Osmanthus is my staple,) but it’s great to learn more about it. February 11, 2011 at 8:26am Reply

  • Elise: Katy: Thanks, I’m always glad to contribute to aha moments! February 11, 2011 at 8:37am Reply

  • rita: It sounds like you have a lovely garden! I miss my old house with its large Bradford pear tree. At least I can live vicariously through your posts. 😀 February 11, 2011 at 9:00am Reply

  • Victoria: Elise, have you tried making tea with the fresh osmanthus blossoms?
    I usually infuse dried ones, which I get from the Chinese store, but I can imagine that fresh would be even more intense.

    Reading your post reminded me how I spent weeks in NC trying to figure out where this beautiful, leathery apricot scent was coming from. 🙂 February 11, 2011 at 9:07am Reply

  • ScentScelf: I love how nature offers some of the most potent smelly pleasures in very unassuming packages.

    Up here in Zone 5, an equivalent could be the witch hazel, whose blooms are not particularly bold, but *quite* as hidden as the osmanthus flowers are. While not useful for tea, it is famous for other applications. 🙂 One of my favorite wafts comes from a tree…when the locusts are in bloom…a honey sweet light floral that needs to find its way to you, and whose blooms I rarely see because they are so high up! 🙂 And of course the linden trees; so gorgeous. And apple blossoms…. All of these follow that same frustrating principle you describe, of being more potent away from the plant than at the plant.

    Unlike a hyacinth, whose voice you can trace right back to the source and still hear it yelling, never missing a beat. 😉

    Oh, dear. I do believe you’ve triggered my itching for growing season. February 11, 2011 at 9:28am Reply

  • Britta: Wonderful description, quite lyrical, thank you! The scent reminds me of New Orleans and the Hove store where I used to buy Tea Olive Soaps and fragrance. What a nice way to have coffee in the morning: reading about scents and their source and surroundings. February 11, 2011 at 10:00am Reply

  • Elise: Marina: Thanks so much for the compliment. Fragrance is hard to describe and I’m glad it was evocative for you. February 11, 2011 at 10:03am Reply

  • Elise: We have a tiny yard but we can actually crowd quite a bit into it. Fortunately the osmanthus are small and fit in many places. February 11, 2011 at 10:15am Reply

  • Elise: Victoria, I need to try the tea. I have not picked any blossom lately, I am enjoying them in the yard. February 11, 2011 at 10:16am Reply

  • Elise: Lovely description of other hidden fragrances. I am currently enjoying some potted hyacinths – love that description! February 11, 2011 at 10:17am Reply

  • Elise: Thanks so much Britta – I am so glad you enjoyed this. I loved writing it. February 11, 2011 at 10:18am Reply

  • Julie: When I worked at the USF Tampa campus botanical garden, there was an osmanthus there. We could always be found with our noses buried in it. We called it the tangerine jello tree. February 11, 2011 at 10:25am Reply

  • maggiecat: I lived in South Florida most of my life, up until the past few years. The only thing I really miss is the ability to grow many different kinds of plants – jasmine, gardenia, passionflower – and now osmanthus! The scent is also popular in New Orleans, and a couple of the perfumeries there – Bourbon French and Hove – carry “tea olive” scents. February 11, 2011 at 10:42am Reply

  • Elise: Fun name! To me it is uplifting and happy and I love coming home to that smell. February 11, 2011 at 1:59pm Reply

  • Elise: I am in western Broward county in south Florida. I didn’t think I’d be able to grow osmanthus here but all mine are doing fine. They have morning sun with palm trees overhead, well-drained soil and I make sure they get plenty of water. February 11, 2011 at 2:02pm Reply

  • KathyT: I grew up in South Carolina to the smell of tea olive at my grandmother’s house. She would cut a sprig of it to include with a spring bouquet of daffodils, hyacinths, and camellias to put in our bedrooms. I have tea olives growing around my deck now, and it is so strange how you can sometimes smell it the strongest at a distance from the bush. They are pretty carefree here in North Carolina which just adds to the appeal. February 11, 2011 at 2:13pm Reply

  • Maria145: My childhood memories of South Carolina are scented with tea olive. Thank you for your beautiful post, which brought back some of these smells. It never occurred to me to plant them, but if they do well in Carolinas, they should be fine in Georgia too. February 11, 2011 at 3:15pm Reply

  • Elise: I love the sound of that bouquet. I am envious of a deck surrounded by tea olives! February 11, 2011 at 5:15pm Reply

  • Elise: I never thought they would grow in south Florida but they are doing fine. They are really quite reasonable if you can find them at a local nursery and I found them in Charleston, SC so you might want to keep a lookout. February 11, 2011 at 5:17pm Reply

  • Mariela: Elise…your description of the osmanthus fragrance is adorable! I planted my first osmanthus today in my garden and I hope I can see it blossom soon and feel the perfume you describe!
    Mariela, from Argentina January 4, 2012 at 4:11pm Reply

  • Esra: Hi Victoria,
    Someone gave me Cote Noire Queen of the Night scented candle for my birthday. It is a blend of Osmanthus and Jasmine. I love the scent so much I want it as a perfume for myself.
    Have you tried this candle and if yes, any perfumes that you think is similar to this scent?
    Thank you! November 21, 2014 at 12:03pm Reply

    • Victoria: Sounds wonderful! Unfortunately, I haven’t tried this candle, but now I will have to keep it in mind. I love osmanthus in everything. November 24, 2014 at 1:12pm Reply

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