Gardens & Conservatory

Plants & Collections

Planting for fragrance: Osmanthus


By Tom Brinda and Lynn Kirk, Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden
Published October 2008 in the Richmond Times-Dispatch

Osmanthus at Lewis Ginter Botanical GardenSome gardeners may call it devilwood, but the fragrance of the osmanthus shrub is nothing less than heavenly. Its tiny, creamy white flowers form clusters that emit a powerfully fragrant scent, similar to the heady fragrances produced by magnolias and gardenias. Originating in east Asia, the osmanthus was cultivated for centuries and offered as aromatic delights to their ancient gods. To this day, its cut branches are brought indoors as fragrant decoration, and its flowers are dried and used to perfume sachets and east Asian teas.

Osmanthus Hedge at Lewis Ginter Botanical GardenThe osmanthus is a broadleaf evergreen, so its handsomely dense foliage of glossy or sometimes variegated leaves provides nice winter interest in terms of color and form. Its fruits, which are dark blue plum-like drupes, add winter color without creating unsightly litter since not preferred by wildlife. In addition to serving as a specimen plant with fragrant and ornamental value, osmanthus can be planted to form natural barriers and screen hedges – literally, walls of fragrance during their blooming season.

Though slow growing, the osmanthus is usually long lived, easy to grow and drought tolerant. It performs best in a site with full sun to slight shade and is tolerant of well-drained, clay soil – like that common to the Richmond area. After the osmanthus is established, it usually can accept neglect due to its minimal potential for disease or pest infestation. Even pruning is entirely optional, especially since its blooms form on old growth and its free-growing form, which is rounded and globe-like, is quite lovely in the right location.

As a member of the olive (Oleaceae) family of flowering plants, the osmanthus offers today’s gardeners more than 15 species for selection. The Osmanthus fragrans, commonly known as tea olive or sweet olive, blooms twice each year, usually around June and September. The false olive (Osmanthus heterophyllus) blooms only in autumn, as does the hybrid of these two species, Fortune’s osmanthus (Osmanthus x fortunei).

Don’t be confused
At first glance, the “false holly” osmanthus appears to be a member of the holly family. To differentiate, remember that the osmanthus leaves are set opposite on the stem, while the holly’s leaves alternate.

This Osmanthus fragrans is an old-style garden plant which is making a popular comeback in many southeastern landscapes.