Back around 1980, my wife and I took a driving trip from Dallas through the South, with a stop in New Orleans. While walking near our guesthouse, we were captivated by a fragrance in the air—very light, very floral, very indescribable. We eventually tracked the scent to a large Sweet Olive tree (Osmanthus fragrans) several blocks away. Since then, I have always grown a sweet olive.
I treat sweet olive like a houseplant. They are not reliably hardy throughout our area, although I see that the National Arboretum in DC says that they have them planted outdoors in Asian Valley so you might make a trip to the Arb and sniff about. They are in bloom from late summer to late fall, according to the Arboretum. Might be that they are okay in the big warm city but not hardy out in say Olney or Columbia.
Osmanthus is an evergreen shrub, with deep green holly-like leaves. The flowers are white, small and borne in clusters; not showy. The scent is very ephemeral and I find it is strongest in the morning and when the air is a bit humid. That said, it seems to be there and gone again; a whiff, and it disappears.
I keep the plant outdoors in the summer, and bring it in around the middle of October. Indoors, it’s in a cool room, in front of a large, bright window (but it does pretty well there even without direct sunlight). When it begins to flower, it will continue to put forth blooms throughout the winter. It’s not a gorgeous plant indoors, it does drop some leaves when it comes in and it looks a little twiggy, so it’s best with some other plants grouped around the base.
The plant is Asian in origin, and most of our customers enquiring about it are of Asian descent. We carry it off and on throughout the year, in our houseplant department.
by Larry Hurley