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  • Scott Colomb

As I walked out of the office today, I caught the scent of the sweet olive planted at the corner of the front porch. Fragrance, for many people, has a powerful effect on memory. When I think of sweet olive, my mind goes back to my days at Louisiana State University. The oldest buildings on campus formed what is called “The Quad”. Sweet olive had been planted near these buildings decades earlier and they had grown to what would have to be called either immense shrubs or small trees. During the winter, the blooms from these plants would fall through the grates covering the steam pipes entering the buildings. The scent of those warmed blossoms was intoxicating. Of course, if you know sweet olive, you know that its fragrance really does not need any help to be intoxicating.

I can think of no other plant, especially with such tiny flowers, with the perfume-power of sweet olive. Even its latin name, Osmanthus fragrans, means “fragrant species of fragrant flower”. I have heard its scent described as similar to ripe apricots, but it is so much more. It is deep, full, rich, and thick… so thick that you can almost taste it (but more on that later!). It is fruity, slightly spicy, and sweet, sweet, sweet. It is bold enough that the scent can be detected fifty, seventy-five, and sometimes one hundred feet or more away from the plant, but it is also shy… often refusing to give up its perfume when you stick your nose into the flowers. The most frustrating part of writing these descriptions is that none of it will do the fragrance any justice. It is one of those magical things that must be experienced firsthand.

And if it is not enough to have a plant that blooms with such sweet flowers, sweet olive is an overachiever. Bloom once? Any plant can do that, but sweet olive blooms multiple times per year. Often starting in September, it blooms in cycles all the way into April, and then sporadically throughout the summer. The wondrous thing about his cyclic blooming is that about the time you get used to the fragrance, it stops. A few weeks later, it starts again and with that first whiff of the new blossoms, your heart beats faster and your mood improves instantly… at least mine does.

In Chinese cuisine, the flowers are used to flavor jams, dumplings, sweet cakes, soups, and drinks. Teas made from the flowers are used in traditional Chinese medicine and an extract from the dried flowers been shown to have antioxidant activity. For me, I simply enjoy eating the fresh flowers, holding them in my mouth and chewing them occasionally to release the sweet flavor, which tastes very mild compared to the strength of the fragrance.

In the landscape, sweet olive (sometimes also known as tea olive) is very versatile. It grows well in full sun, but also grows in shade, though its evergreen foliage will be be thinner and more open. It tolerates most soils, except those that stay wet, and once established drought is not a problem. It handles pruning very well and can be allowed to grow into a large rounded, but upright shrub, a small tree, or kept cut back as a small shrub or hedge.

Like the other “old Southern garden plants”, such as azalea, camellia, crape myrtle, gardenia, forsythia, and jasmine (just to name a few), sweet olive is a native of southeastern Asia, which is similar climatically to the southeastern US. Considered hardy to USDA zones 7 and 8, it can be found as far north as Atlanta, Georgia and sometimes beyond. Many large, old specimens (up to twenty feet or more) can be found in the lower South, but few of these old-timers will be found in the mid South or above due to their periodic destruction by sudden, deep freezes occurring every decade or so. Instead, they tend to regrow if frozen to the ground, never attaining full size. But, do not let the fear that the plant may one day freeze keep you from planting a sweet olive. As my good friend, Gene Hughes, has taught me; it is better to enjoy a plant, even if you may have it for only a short time, than to never get to enjoy it at all.

If you have room in your garden, plant a sweet olive...

and make a memory.

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