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Skaggs: Looking for fragrance? It’s time for a tea olive.

POSTED: June 17, 2008 5:00 a.m.

Tea olives (Osmanthus species) are some of the most sweetly fragrant plants in Southern gardens. Their scent makes them ideal for planting near windows and outdoor living areas where the fall blooming flowers can be readily enjoyed.

Tea olives grow as dense, evergreen shrubs or small trees. Their leaves resemble holly leaves, explaining another common name, false holly. They can be readily distinguished from hollies by their opposite leaves, hollies having alternate leaves.

The mature size of a tea olive depends on the cultivar - anywhere from 6 to 30 feet tall. Width is similar to height. The smaller leafed cultivars, such as Fortune's tea olive (O. x fortunei), can be trained into hedges and can be maintained as low as 4 to 5 feet tall.

Flowers of all tea olive species are intensely fragrant, often being compared to the scent of peaches, orange blossoms or jasmine. The most common flower color is creamy-white, but depending on the cultivar can vary to include pure white, pale to deep yellow and orange. While individual flowers are small, the clusters are usually large and numerous enough to be quite showy.

Foliage is dark, leathery and usually toothed along the edges. Growth habit of most species is dense and upright, oval to rounded in form. The dense growth habit and dark evergreen foliage of tea olives make them excellent choices for hedges, screens and individual specimen plants.

Tea olives rarely need pruning since they usually form a pleasing shape on their own. However, they can be pruned either selectively for shape, or small leafed types can be sheared as formal hedges. Prune most tea olives before growth starts in spring, since they flower on current season's growth.

Most tea olives will grow in sun to medium shade. Tea olives grow best in fertile, moist, well-drained, acidic soil. They are moderately drought tolerant once established. Two tea olive often found thriving in the Southern garden are Fortune's Tea Olive and Fragrant Tea Olive.

Fortune's Tea Olive (O. x fortunei) is a hybrid between O. heterophyllus and O. fragrans. It is intermediate between those species in most traits. Fortune's tea olive grows 15 to 20 feet tall, with similar width. It has dense growth in an oval-rounded form. White, highly fragrant flowers last for several weeks from October to November. Fortune's tea olive thrives in North Georgia and makes a nice screen.

Fragrant Tea Olive (O. fragrans) is the most fragrant species of a group known as a whole for their superb scent. Fragrant tea olives can grow as tall as 20 to 30 feet near the coast, although they are usually smaller, particularly in the Piedmont. Height is more often in the 10 to 12 foot range with an 8-foot width. Plants are upright when young, but can spread into a small vase-shaped tree at maturity.

In most winters, the fragrant tea olive does fine in our area, but suffers cold damage in the mountains if temperatures in a very cold winter approach zero F.

Fragrant tea olive has an exceptionally long bloom period, often for two months during the fall, with scattered blooming through winter and into the spring. The flowers are showy, held in clusters along the stems. There are several cultivars, mostly chosen for flower color.

If you're looking for a medium to large evergreen, consider the tea olive for both its appearance and its sweet scent.

Billy Skaggs is an agricultural agent and Hall County Extension Coordinator. Phone: 770-531-6988. Fax: 770-531-3994.


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