This month’s plant spotlight is the tea olive, also known by scientific name as Osmanthus. Tea olive is a dense, evergreen shrub that is better known for its fragrant fall flowers. The leaves of tea olives resemble holly leaves, often being confused with hollies, giving it the other common name of false holly. It is easy to determine the difference between hollies and tea olives. Tea olives will have opposite leaf arrangements down the stem while hollies have alternate leaf arrangements.
The height of Osmanthus species can vary from 6 to 30 feet tall depending on the cultivar. The width of the shrub is usually similar in size to the height. Growth rate for tea olives is slow to moderate, however growth rate will be greatly influenced by soil quality, water and nutrient availability.
The best feature tea olives have is their sweet, intensely fragrant flowers. The fragrance of the flowers is often compared to the scent of peaches, jasmine or orange blossoms. They flower in the fall (October and November) and definitely should be planted where you can enjoy their scent. The individual flowers are small and almost hard to see until you look closely and see clusters of creamy white flowers hidden in the shrub. You will probably smell the shrub well before noticing the flowers.
The leave foliage is dark, leathery and usually toothed along the edges (giving it a holly like appearance). The Osmanthus shrub grows in a dense, upright oval to round form making this a great shrub in the landscape for hedges or screens.
As for site selection, tea olives grow best in sun but can also handle medium shade. They grow well in fertile, moist, well-drained soils with a slightly acidic pH. Once planted and established, tea olives are fairly drought tolerant and may only need watering during extreme drought periods.
Tea olives really will have little problems to worry about if planted and cared for properly. They are long-lived and virtually pest free. Occasional disease and insect problems could occur but this would be mainly when the plant is under stressful conditions becoming more prone to pest problems. Root rot disease could occur but will be associated with the plant being planted in poorly drained or excessively wet soils. Occasionally, scale insects could be a problem but can be managed well with horticultural oil spray. A bonus for tea olives is that they are fairly resistant to damage by deer.
Most Osmanthus species grow in a hardiness zone range of 7 to 9 (Wayne County is zone 8), making this shrub a nice selection for gardens in our area. Below are three common tea olives to consider:
- Holly Tea Olive (Osmanthus heterophyllus) is relatively small compared to other tea olives, growing between 8 and 10 feet tall and slightly narrower in width. Holly tea olives are very dense with smaller leaves than other tea olives. Because of the dense foliage, these are often used as a formal hedge. There are several cultivars of holly tea olives to pick from, some even having variegated foliage. For example, the cultivar ‘Goshiki’ has green and cream variegated foliage with the young foliage having a pinkish color.
- Fragrant Tea Olive (Osmanthus fragrans) is the most fragrant of all the tea olives. Fragrant tea olive can grow as tall as 20 to 30 feet, but on average the height is usually more around 10 to 12 feel tall. This Osmanthus has exceptionally long bloom period often for 2 months in the fall with scattered blooming through out the winter and even into the spring.
- Fortune’s Tea Olive (Osmanthus x fortunei) is a hybrid cross between the two tea olives mentioned previously. So the traits of the Fortune’s tea olive are midway between the two species in most traits.
If you have been on the search for a different plant to use for a hedge or enjoy having fragrant plants, tea olives have these great features and can make a great addition to your landscape or garden.
Jessica Strickland is an Agriculture Extension Agent, specializing in horticulture for North Carolina Cooperative Extension in Wayne County.