Osmanthus or tea olives are outstanding small evergreen trees and shrubs in the Oleacea family. Gaiety Hollow is home to one particularly outstanding specimen of Osmanthus x fortunei that Edith and Elizabeth planted in the mid-1960’s. It’s a fall bloomer with flowers so fragrant you can smell the blossoms all down the alley on a calm, cool morning.
The plant is named for Robert Fortune (1812-1880), the intrepid Scottish botanist best known for his exploits of stealing tea plants (Camellia sinensis) from China and smuggling them to India on behalf of the British East India company in the mid-1800’s. He introduced this hybrid of Osmanthus fragrans and Osmanthus heterophyllus in 1858. During his three years in China, Robert Fortune sent thousands of plants back to the British Isles in Wardian cases. These were glass terrariums filled with plants and sealed so the plants would survive the long ocean journey back to England.
It’s not surprising that throughout the 1940’s, 50’s and 60’s, Edith and Elizabeth tried quite a few different Osmanthus in the garden, as these stately shrubs and small trees would have met their many design requirements including extreme fragrance, glossy evergreen foliage, screening capability, elegant structure and varied habit from shrub to small tree.
Records show Edith and Elizabeth grew Osmanthus armatus, fragrans, illicifolius and delavayi, as well as x fortunei and heterophyllus over the years. If you don’t grow Osmanthus in your garden you should…there is a species or cultivar to fit any size garden. In my home garden, I have the smaller Osmanthus delavayi and Osmanthus heterophyllus ‘purpureus‘, and after experiencing the wonderful tree form that Edith and Elizabeth planted so many years ago, I think I’ll be adding Osmanthus x fortunei to my planting list.