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Plants from the genus Osmanthus are great large, evergreen shrubs to add to your landscape. Give them a bit of room and they’ll reward you with dark green foliage and tiny white flowers that will perfume your garden. In our area, consider Fragrant Tea Olive (Osmanthus fragrans), Holly Tea Olive (Osmanthus heterophyllus) and Fortune’s Osmanthus (Osmanthus x fortunei).
Fragrant Tea Olive is the least cold hardy of the group but this isn’t usually a problem in Southeastern North Carolina. If temperatures drop into the single digits where you are, plant it in a protected site. It’s said that this osmanthus blooms in every month whose name contains an ‘r’ and you won’t miss that too far around here. The creamy-white flowers aren’t particularly showy to the eye but the spicy fragrance is my favorite plant smell. Gardenias have nothing on Fragrant Tea Olive.
In slightly warmer climates, this plant may reach tree-like status of 30 feet. It’s more common to see 15-foot tall specimens in our area. Even though tea olive will tolerate pruning well, it’s best to give it enough room to develop without constant butchering. Use it as a screen or at the back of a border and it will provide privacy as well as wonderful fragrance.
False-holly or Holly Tea Olive is a bit smaller than its cousin Fragrant Tea Olive reaching 10-12 feet. As the name implies, the juvenile foliage is spiny like some of the hollies. In October and November, white four-petaled flowers open. While not quite as fragrant as Fragrant Tea Olive, false-holly still does a respectable job of pleasing the nose.
Several selections of Holly Tea Olive are available in the trade. Gulftide is more upright and compact. Goshiki is a slow-growing variegated form that makes a strong statement in partial shade. Rotundifolius has distinctive wavy leaf margins and grows slower than the species.
Fortune’s osmanthus is a hybrid between the other two plants. The juvenile foliage looks much like a spiny holly. The biggest advantage of Fortune’s osmanthus is that it is a bit more vigorous than Holly Tea Olive and tolerates cold better than Fragrant Tea Olive. The white, fragrant flowers will show up about the same time as its parent false-holly. Because it doesn’t die and tolerates insults like poor pruning, this is the most common osmanthus used in landscapes. San Jose is a popular selection with slightly longer and narrower leaves.
All three of these large, evergreen shrubs prefer moist, slightly acidic, well-drained soil. In high pH soils you’ll have yellowing in the new growth from iron chlorosis like you often see in azaleas. Choose a site with a bit of protection from the hottest mid-day sun.