How to Grow Tea Olive

Golden osmanthus close up of foliage and flowers

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In This Article

Tea olive plants are a member of the olive (Oleaceae) family. Their delightful fragrance is akin to jasmine, orange blossoms, and ripe peaches or apricots. The name Osmanthus (in the botanical name Osmanthus fragrans) comes from the Greek words osme meaning fragrant and anthos meaning flower. Consisting of about 30 species of Angiosperms (flowering plants), most Osmanthus are native to subtropical eastern Asia. All Osmanthus species are evergreen shrubs or petite trees. Leaves are simple, serrated, spiny, and covered with glands similar to the appearance of holly. White or yellow flowers are hermaphrodite, though usually become unisexual, and have two to four stamens. These showy blooms bear fruits that are bony or hard in texture.

These shrubs are easy to grow and care for. Welcome a tea olive evergreen into your garden for winter interest or in mass as a privacy hedge. Plant them in the fall to encourage root development. These plants have a medium growth rate and will grow up to 24 inches a year.

Botanical Name Osmanthus fragrans
Common Names  Tea olive, sweet olive, sweet osmanthus, fragrant olive, false holly
Plant Type  Evergreen shrub/tree
Mature Size  20–30 ft. tall, 10 ft. wide
Sun Exposure  Full 
Soil Type  Well-drained
Soil pH  Acidic
Bloom Time  Spring, fall, intermittent
Flower Color  White or yellow
Hardiness Zones  8–11 (USDA)
Native Area  Asia

Tea Olive Care

Resistant to many pests, able to withstand heavy pruning, and adaptable to a variety of soils, tea olive plants are a beloved choice of landscapers in Mexico and the southern United States. These plants like plenty of space as, depending on the variety, tea olive can grow between 15 and 30 feet tall.

South of USDA Zone 8a, tea olive is grown as a flowering tree, shrub, hedge, screen, or espalier. In locations such as St. Louis, Missouri, where it is considered invasive, gardeners typically keep the specimen in a pot on decks, patios, or other outdoor sitting areas. It can also be tended to indoors as a houseplant.

Light

Plant in full sun. Offer part afternoon shade in hot summer climates.

Soil

Tea olive will grow easily in any good garden soil, tolerating heavy clay and even chalk. Average, moist, well-drained soil is best.

Water

Watering needs are medium and the plant is drought-tolerant once established.

Temperature and Humidity

These plants are typically winter hardy to about 10 degrees Fahrenheit, thriving year-round in USDA Zones 8 through 11.

Tea Olive Varieties

The different species vary considerably in size, leaf shape, and color. These are some popular varieties:

  • Osmanthus fragrans make up about 15 of the 30 or so varieties of Osmanthus. They are also known by the names sweet olive, sweet Osmanthus, and fragrant olive. Their white flowers can be steeped in tea as the Chinese do. They are native to Eastern North America, Hawaii, Mexico, Southeast Asia, and New Caledonia.
  • Osmanthus americanus is an American native variety. It is the only species of tea olive that tolerates salt spray, making it ideal for coastal locations. Because it is sometimes considered invasive, gardeners in St. Louis, for example, grow it in containers.
  • Osmanthus heterophyllus is known as "false holly" due to its pointed leaves which are especially resemblant of holly bushes. This plant blooms in late fall and can reach a height of 15 feet. A year after the fruit is produced, it ripens.

While most varieties bear white flowers, some, like the Golden Osmanthus (a variety of Osmanthus fragrans) have yellow flowers. These blooms emit a heavenly, jasmine-like fragrance, and the Japanese and Chinese make use of the plant's healing detoxifying and anti-inflammatory properties. It's often used to flavor green tea.

Pruning

Tea olive can be trained as a small tree, shrub, or espalier. Clip its tips to encourage growth and maintain the desired size. Prune at the end of winter before buds appear. If you choose to prune, be careful not to overdo it, as too much pruning can actually prevent the plant from blooming. Osmanthus plants only need pruning if they get too big or develop unattractive or dead branches.

Propagating Tea Olive

To propagate by cuttings, root in the warmth of summer. Prepare a sand mixture in a nursery container, place in a shady location, and gather cuttings. Use clean, sharp pruning shears to snip semi-hardwood cuttings that are about 8 inches long and then prune the cuttings to remove the leaves. A rooting hormone compound will speed up the propagation process. Grafting and seed propagation is possible, though generally not as successful. Osmanthus grows best on their own roots.