Tea olive, also known as sweet olive (Osmanthus fragrans), is a large evergreen shrub or small tree that originally hails from Asia. It is primarily grown for its tiny white flowers that emit an incredibly potent fragrance, usually in the autumn and winter months. One mature shrub can perfume an entire property, and one flowering twig can fill an entire house with an aroma said to be reminiscent of ripe peaches or apricots.
Tea olive is very easy to grow. It tolerates fairly deep shade but flowers best in full sun to light shade. Give it well-drained soil on the acid side. Although it is moderately drought tolerant once it becomes established, it prefers consistent moisture.
Young specimens grow fairly fast, reaching 8-10 feet in as many years, then their growth rate tends to slow down. This plant is very tough and long-lived; images on the Internet show 30-foot-tall trees with stout, gnarled trunks that are hundreds of years old. In many parts of Asia, the tea olive is the focus of city-wide festivals and the flowers are used to flavor wine, cakes and pastries, jelly and tea. 
Varieties with striking yellow and orange flowers are also available. The highly desirable cultivar, ‘Fudingzou’ (“Pearls upon Buddha’s head”), has larger white flowers that sporadically appear throughout the year in our area. It is slower growing than other types and I have noticed that it may not be quite as tolerant of drier soil in comparison to other varieties. 
Tea olive is a wonderful addition to our Gulf Coast gardens and I would rate it as essential for anyone who loves fragrant plants.
David Duling is the director of Mercer Botanic Gardens in Humble. Send your questions to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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