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Tea Olive offers fragrant blooms

When I got a call encouraging me to come see the Tea Olive, Osmanthus fragrans, that was blooming in my daughter-in-law's yard I wasn't much moved to action.

Tea Olives in bloom I have seen, and because the leaves nearly hide the little flowers that lurk down near the stems in the leaf axils, it isn't really a sight that makes a gardener's heart beat faster.

Then she said the flowers were orange and knock-you-down fragrant. Fragrant I believed: Osmanthus has few rivals in the realm of scented plants. I did have a problem believing the blossom color; I thought that Tea Olives had only one bloom color - white. I was wrong; the blooms were orange.

Michael A. Dirr records in his "Manual of Woody Landscape Plants" that this plant that so enchanted my daughter-in-law is a form of Osmanthus called "aurantiacus." He even goes on to compliment it, calling it a plant with "a beautiful form."

The juvenile Osmanthus in form and leaf is not a lot like the adult plant it will become. The leaves in a young plant have marginal spines that are missing in an older specimen. The leaves in an immature form are so spiny that one of the common names for Osmanthus is "False Holly." The adolescent Tea Olive has a decidedly upright form, but as it ages, it spreads out (some of us did the same thing.)

The Osmanthus wants it all - fertile, moist, well-drained soil. It is happiest in afternoon shade but is fairly tolerant of full sun and probably blooms best there. It likes acid soil, so give it some azalea fertilizer in spring. This plant has the potential to grow into a large shrub, more than 20 feet tall, but it can be pruned without harm. It blooms spring and fall, so I haven't a clue when one can prune it without sacrificing a bloom period.

The best landscape use for Tea Olive is placement near porches, decks or entrances where the fragrance can be enjoyed. They can be planted in containers, but care would have to be taken that they don't get root-bound or outgrow their space.

Most nurseries have Osmanthus, and if you want an orange-flowering one, you will need to visit the nursery this time of year when they are in bloom.

An evergreen shrub that blooms twice a year and smells good - one almost doesn't care what color the flowers are.

Winder resident Dora Fleming is a Georgia master gardener. E-mail her at dfleming1@earthlink.net.