One of my favorite fragrances will soon be perfuming the air. I’ve always said that when I died, I wanted a sweet olive (Osmanthus fragrans) planted on my grave so I could smell it forever. My mom’s best friend, Mary Beth Hagood, grew the first one I ever saw in her former garden in Houston. Then when I moved to Baton Rouge in the 1990s, I got to see them in profusion, some as large as small live oak trees. There were so many in the area that I could smell them in my truck driving down the road with my windows up. I was in love forever.
The flowers of the sweet olive, which are borne in early spring and sometimes fall and winter, are small and creamy, but their perfume is powerful, one of the most distinctive of garden fragrances. Originally from China, the sweet olive has been cultivated in temple and home gardens there for so long that its origins are uncertain. Following the usual route west, sweet olives were brought to England in 1771, and from there to America. This plant forms a shrub or small tree, and can reach a height of 12 to 15 feet. Its evergreen foliage and dense form make this plant valuable as a specimen, hedge or mass.
Propagation is by cuttings, and these popular plants are generally available in the nursery trade. Sweet olives prefer moist, deep, acid soils, but they adapt fairly well to less favorable growing conditions. An orange flowering form, known as aurantiacus, is sometimes found in Southern gardens. It only blooms once in the spring, but it’s beautiful and a heavy bloomer.
Records from Rosedown Plantation in St. Francisville, Louisiana, show that its owner, Martha Turnbull, purchased three “Chinese fragrant olives (used to scent their tea)” from the New York nursery William Prince and Son in 1836. Today the scent of huge descendants from those plants permeates the entire garden during the fall and early spring.
Most of the older catalogues listed sweet olive as Olea fragrans. Affleck’s Central Nurseries, near Brenham, offered it in the 1860 price list. Fruitlands Nurseries, Augusta, Georgia, in its 1906-07 catalog, offered the following: “Olea fragrans (Tea, or Sweet Olive). One of the most desirable flowering shrubs of Southern gardens. The white flowers, although small, are produced in clusters and emit the most pleasing fragrance. It is well said that ‘each individual bloom has more sweetness than the most fragrant lily.’ As a conservatory shrub for Northern florists, it will be found invaluable and of ready sale. The blooming period begins in the fall and lasts for several months. It is of easy culture and especially desirable as a window plant.”
Greg Grant is the Smith County horticulturist for the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service. You can follow him on Facebook at “Greg Grant Gardens,” read his “Greg’s Ramblings” blog at arborgate.com or read his “In Greg’s Garden” in each issue of Texas Gardener magazine (texasgardener.com). For more information on local educational programming, go to smith.agrilife.org.