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Plant Highlight: Osmanthus fragrans

October 2004

Many visitors to the Ruth Bancroft Garden at this time of year are struck by a sweet fragrance that perfumes the air around the Folly at the entrance to the garden. The source of this delightful scent is an evergreen bush planted along the drive, Osmanthus fragrans forma aurantiacus. While our plant is a bush, this species can eventually grow into a small tree, attaining a height of up to 30 feet.

Osmanthus is a member of the Oleaceae, or olive family, and most species are native to east Asia, though some occur in the Pacific and the southern U.S. In addition to the olive, other members of the family include jasmine and forsythia. O. fragrans is thought to be native to China, although it has been cultivated for its fragrance so widely and for so long that it is hard to pinpoint its precise place of origin. Common names for it include fragrant olive and tea olive. White or cream are the usual flower colors in the genus Osmanthus, and this holds true for the typical form of O. fragrans. However, our specimen is of the form with pale apricot flowers (forma aurantiacus). While the flowers are small, and their pastel hue is subtle rather than ostentatious, their remarkable fragrance is a wonderful addition to the garden.