The Gardener's Apprentice

Tea Olive

For years I have damned osmanthus with faint praise or no praise at all.  Two of the evergreen shrubs stand silently in front of the house, growing nicely and receiving absolutely nothing from me except an occasional, grudging pruning.  When I think of them at all, I think about what I would grow in their place.  If they were sensate beings with a way to remove themselves from the premises, I am sure they would have done it long ago.

Why have I been so ambivalent towards innocent shrubs?  For one thing, I didn’t choose them.  They were here when I moved in, along with several shaggy yews and a bunch of rabbit-like roses of Sharon that did nothing but self-seed.   All but one of the yews are long gone and I have developed a fondness for roses of Sharon, despite the fact that I grub out at least 1,000 seedlings a year.  The osmanthus have been in limbo—not annoying enough to remove and not loveable enough to extol.  No one should have plants like that in the garden, but I suspect that many people do.

Osmanthus are sometimes known as false holly or tea olive.  Both names say something significant about the plants.  Like holly, the shrubs and small trees in the osmanthus family are evergreen, often with glossy green leaves.  Some species, including mine, sport sharp, holly-like spines on the leaves.  Osmanthus is also a member of the olive family, which also includes lilac and privet.  The fruits resemble small olives, but the relationship to lilac might seem improbable unless you are able to smell the intensely fragrant osmanthus flowers.  The Latin genus name says it all, deriving from the word “osme,” meaning “fragrant,” and “anthos,” meaning “flower.”

It is hard to love a plant that begs to be pruned; then turns around and rewards your labors by shredding garden gloves and scratching even protected skin.  Still, an objective observer might point out that I adore roses, which arm themselves with enough prickles to shame a porcupine and need much more frequent pruning.

The osmanthus in my yard are variegated holly osmanthus or Osmanthus heterophyllus, a species that originated in Japan and Taiwan.  Each leaf is several inches long and prickly, like standard holly.  The variegation is cream and green, with splashes over each leaf, rather than the white leaf edges borne by some varieties.  Left to their own devices, the twin shrubs might grow as tall as 10 feet, but I keep them pruned to about 6 feet tall.  I have also standardized them to expose the bottom two thirds of the trunks.  This makes the plants more graceful in my medium-size suburban garden.

At one time I thought of digging up the two osmanthus and transplanting them into box-shaped planters.  Standardized and boxed they might have marked the base of my front walk or possibly flanked the front steps.  It would have been a nice formal touch.  Because I am a lazy gardener, the boxing has never happened.  It is probably a good thing.  Most likely I would have damaged both the osmanthus and my back muscles.

I might love my osmanthus more if I could ever catch a whiff of the fragrant flowers.  Each one is white, with four petals and appears in early fall each year.  Sadly, the tiny flowers sprout in the leaf axils, where the leaves meet the stems, and are often hidden by the dense foliage.  It is easier to smell them than see them.  I haven’t done either, because for years I have pruned the bushes whenever the spirit moved me and invariably the spirit moved me at the wrong time.  This year I will pay attention and keep the clippers sheathed until mid fall.  I suspect that the flowers probably have the same irresistible scent as privet, of which I am very fond.

Despite the relationship’s rocky history, I have come to respect osmanthus.  As broadleaf evergreens, they add structure and color to the garden, especially in deepest, darkest winter when not even the hellebores dare to put out flowers.  The scent they contribute in fall—when pruned at the right time—is a welcome addition at a moment in the gardening season when there are fewer scented flowers to be had.  Osmanthus thrive in sun to partial shade and are absolutely undemanding.  At holiday time, the spiny-leafed sprigs work well alongside true holly in seasonal decorations and arrangements.

Holly osmanthus, like mine, is hardy to USDA Zone 7, which means they can withstand annual extreme minimum temperatures down to 0 degrees Fahrenheit.  Other osmanthus species are more tender, including the intensely fragrant Osmanthus delavayi and Osmanthus fragrans.  Both bloom in spring and the scent of the former won the praise of garden writer Vita Sackville-West, who grew it in the garden at Sissinghurst.

Online and catalog vendors sell a number of holly osmanthus varieties.  Mine is most likely ‘Variegatus.’  Lovers of colorful foliage might also try ‘Goshiki,’ with spiny leaves splashed and flecked with green, gold and cream, along with pink early in the season.  ‘Purpureus’ features purple-tinged new growth that matures to green.

Lovers of evergreens will probably take to osmanthus quicker than I did.  For everyone else, I recommend giving the shrub a chance.  It may stick you with prickles when you prune, but it will also most likely grow on you.

Find osmanthus species and varieties at ForestFarm, P.O. Box 1, Williams, OR 97544; (541) 846-7269,  Catalog $5.00.