One of my favorite shrubs is fragrant tea olive (Osmanthus fragrans), also known as sweet olive or simply tea olive. Its tiny cream-colored flowers are not showy, but release a delightful, luscious fragrance that reminds me of apricots. It may have a few blooms in all the other seasons, but in Atlanta, fall is when it produces the most flowers. On afternoons the fragrance can waft from one shrub to the surrounding neighborhood.
In her classic A Southern Garden, Elizabeth Lawrence wrote that in Thomasville there is one at every doorstep and in midwinter the town “smells like a perfume shop.” The book was written in 1942, but I hope tea olive is still a part of the Thomasville landscape. I can’t imagine why it wouldn’t be. It is durable, easy to grow, and, in my opinion, smells better than anything out of a bottle.
With its evergreen leaves, tea olive looks somewhat like a holly but is a member of the olive family. It prefers full sun to partial shade and is not particular as to soil. Tea olive can grow 10-20 feet tall or more with an 8-12 feet spread, but is usually kept much smaller by pruning. Most people grow them as large, mounded shrubs, but some train them into small trees with multiple trunks. Tea olive can even be grown as an espalier, a very effective way to make this shrub part of your garden if you have limited space or if you are trying to grow them in colder climates. (The leaves are damaged by temperatures below 0 degrees F.)
Tea olive can be part of an informal hedge or screen that includes other broad-leaved evergreens such as sasanqua, cleyera, yaupon, Japanese anise, wax myrtle and banana shrub. It also combines well with deciduous shrubs or can be grown as a specimen plant.
Tea olive is readily available from garden centers and mail order sources. With some luck or searching, you may come across varieties with yellow or orange flowers. These are far less common than the cream-colored one but are worth seeking if you want something different.
Two related shrubs, Fortune’s osmanthus (Osmanthus x fortunei) and holly osmanthus (Osmanthus heterophyllus) are more cold hardy than tea olive although their fragrance is inferior to their sweeter cousin.