An unapologetic plant geek shares advice and opinions on gardening, the contrived and the natural landscape, as well as occasional topics from the other side of the gate.

October 18, 2008

Intoxicating Osmanthus

Years ago I lived outside of Charleston, SC and would frequently go into the city to escape island isolation. With lush gardens and sea breezes, Charleston is a city full of fragrances, but not all of these smells are good. An aging sea-level sewer system and teams of urinating horses (they wear diapers to catch the chunky bits) often force one into hand covered mouth breathing. However, one of the more common garden plants has an aroma strong enough to mask these odors. Osmanthus fragrans (Fragrant Teaolive) is an old southern favorite and when it blooms it is so intoxicatingly sweet and so strong, mal-odors disappear. The fragrance is hard to compare with other plant smells, it is more like a bottled perfume or a really sweet cake icing. My neighbors here in Norfolk use to have one that was about 10' tall, and when it was in bloom we could smell it on our front porch, 100' feet away. Unfortunately their house painter asked if he could trim some shrubs to get to the siding. He chopped it, and several camellias of equal size, to the ground - I would have sued.

We sell several varieties of Osmanthus at work, and this time of year when they are at peak flower, people buy them on impulse. The easiest variety to find is just the straight species Osmanthus fragrans, but several years ago we started selling the cultivar 'Fudingszhu' (syn. 'Nanjing's Beauty'). I most often recommend 'Fudingzhu' because it is much more florific than the species and the individual flowers are slightly larger. In this case more flowers and larger petals mean more fragrance. We also sell an orange flowered cultivar, Osmanthus f. 'Aurantiacus' that is just as fragrant as the others. It is hard to find this color flower on a large shrub. I get this plant and 'Fudhingzhu' from Nurseries Caroliniana, in North Augusta, SC. This retail/wholesale nursery sells many unusual plants and is run by Ted Stevens, a true planstman.
Most varieties of Osmanthus fragrans will get anywhere from 8 to 10' tall in the cooler part of its range or 20'+ in warmer areas. They are not hardy much below zone 7b, and are killed at 0 degrees Fahrenheit. Although they will tolerate full sun, they are happiest in part shade, and will even bloom in heavy shade. Fall is the best season for their flowers, but they will bloom occasionally in spring and more rarely in summer.

There are many species of Osmanthus, but the only other one we carry on a regular basis is Osmanthus heterophyllus 'Goshiki'. Perhaps because it does not have the fragrant flowers of O. fragrans, it tries to make up for it with colorful foliage and a more garden friendly habit. Goshiki means "five colors" in Japanese and looking at the photo below, you can easily count five if not more in the foliage. This plant is also less demanding of space than O. fragrans getting only about 5-6' tall and wide, and it is more cold tolerant being able to go to zone 6. It does like the same part shade conditions, but can go sunnier or shadier without ill effects.
If you are interested in reading about the hunt for a red flowered Osmanthus fragrans I found an interesting article written by Dr. David Creech in the Stephen F. Austin Mast Arboretum newsletter. He mentioned that Osmanthus is revered in China where it is celebrated with several festivals. Dr. Creech also said that there is one specimen of O. fragrans at Shengshui temple that is an incredible 2100 years old. Now that is garden longevity!


  1. Yours sure are pretty. I grow the regular variety but it struggles. Not sure why. But, it does smell great!

  2. Very interesting...will need to look into this plant more thoroughly. I appreciate your photos and information. Have you posted where in Norfolk your garden shop is?

  3. Oh, Les, I'm going to have to make a trip to South Carolina. I'm already craving the Fudingszhu and Aurantiacus--I don't have the Goshiki, either, and it's really cute. My heterophyllus, though, is quite tall (the older ones are about 8-9 feet) and it is fragrant, although the flowers are almost imperceptible. Thanks for posting on this glorious shrub. I love your idea of making a cake that tastes like these smell--let me work on it . . . (though I best hurry, while I can still smell them . . .)

  4. Tina,
    I am not sure why yours struggles, maybe you get too cold in the winter? I know they really like the coastal south.

    Thanks for stopping by. The company I work for is not in Norfolk, but in Suffolk. I prefer to keep the name off this blog to retain a degree of independence as this effort is for me, and not for them.

    Please let me know when the cake is ready!


  5. Thanks Les, I understand not wanting to mention the garden center...will be heading out to Suffolk.

  6. The info about growing these helps a lot - I have an O.f. "Aurantiacus" growing in shade which hasn't bloomed yet (it's only a couple of years old), and I've been toying with the idea of moving it. Now I think I'll just try to be patient (quite a challenge for me) and give it some time.

    Charleston is one of my favorite places - I used to spend lots of time there while visiting relatives in Ladson. My Cherokee rose was grown from a cutting which "fell" into my pocket as I was "examining a gravestone" in the cemetary of the Huguenot Church. It's a crime I've been regretting for many years now; those dead Huguenots sure get their revenge as I prune that monster all year, cussing and bleeding profusely!

  7. Jeff,
    Bleeding and cussing just help you appreciate the rose that much more. I love the interior of the Hugenot church, but my favorite graveyard was/is the one at the Unitarian Church. Before Hugo, I dragged all my visiting friends and relatives to it.