I was fortunate enough to be able to visit the garden of Augusta Master Gardener Sharon Altman this past weekend. Sharon has been a Master Gardener since the early years, and her garden reflects that long-time collection of hundreds of plants of every size and nature. I was most impressed by the fragrant tea olives that grow on her property.
Fragrant tree olive or Osmanthus fragrans is an evergreen shrub or small tree native to Asia in the olive family. The name comes from the Greek words for fragrant “osme” and flower “anthos”. Most tea olives grow to more than 10 feet tall with glossy leaves with a dense habit. Tea olive is actually a member of the Oleaceae (olive) family. Although the growth rate of tea olives may be less than a foot per year, growth rate is strongly influenced by the quality of the soil and availability of water.
Tea olives can be planted in full sun or partial shade. In our heat, it prefers a little shade. It will grow in our heavy clay soils, much like camellias do. The tea olive is drought-tolerant up to a point. If long dry spells occur, it will appreciate some watering.
Tea olives bloom on old wood and produce more flowers if left unpruned. Prune only for shaping because a pruning may cause sections of the tea olive not to produce blooms for up to five years. Tea olives can be used as a hedge plant or at the very back of a border. Be sure to plant it where you can enjoy the fragrance of the blooms. Tea olives would do well in a sensory garden.
‘ Tea olives were blooming in Sharon’s Garden this month, but their biggest bloom happens in the spring and summer. Sharon’s garden is in Zone 8, but I know of a similar large one in my sister’s yard in Bartow County (Zone 7b).
No tea is made from tea olive, but oil is sometimes extracted for perfumes and other uses. The tree has a smell similar to apricots or peaches.
In addition to the white-blooming cultivar of tea olive, there are several other more colorful cultivars. Sharon’s garden also had Osmanthus fragrans aurantlacus, a cultivar whose flowers are close to orange. This orange cultivar is more cold-tolerant than the white cultivar. The orange flowers only last for a couple of weeks, but the blooms it does have are beautiful.
To propagate tea olive, take a 6 to 8 inch cutting in late Autumn, and remove all but two leaves at the top. Dip the cuttings in rooting hormone and plant the cutting in a combination of peat moss and perlite. Keep it moist by putting a clear plastic bag over the cuttings and check them in about 6 weeks.
In late October, I will be raiding my sister’s tea olive!
Marjorie Stansel is a UGA Douglas County Master Gardener Extension Volunteer. Additional information/publications on gardening can be found at the University of Georgia’s Extension website, http://extension.uga.edu/. In addition, the local UGA Douglas County Extension office available to assist firstname.lastname@example.org or 770-920-7224.